The light my students shine

I view my job as a treasure that brings light to my life.  I don’t want it to be a secret treasure, but when I boast about its riches, I often find myself on the defensive. My social world and my work world are on the two separate isles of the Jewish divide. (Has our community ever been more divided at a time when it more needed to be united?) I was raised a secular Jew, studied feminist theory at UCLA, and wrote my dissertation on Virginia Woolf.  I’m a professor at Touro College Los Angeles, where most men wear kipas, married women wigs, and classes for men and women are scheduled on separate days.

When asked to describe what it’s like to teach young people who shiddah date in their late teens, get married in their early twenties, dress “frum,” walk to synagogue and  keep strictly kosher, I’d like to throw open the doors to my Communications 101 class and let my students speak for themselves. (This is my bonus class, and also my favorite class — no papers to grade!)

I wish all could hear my students’ expository — “how to” speeches.  As training, my class views samples on a DVD that Dr. Hamilton Gregory, author of our textbook,  Public Speaking for College and Career, models with his classroom. One sample speech is on “How to Hide Your Valuables”; another is on “How to Avoid Food Poisoning”; a third is on “How to Handle Heat Waves.”  On a rainy day in December, one of my students taught us how to make donuts.  Here is how she began:    

I’m sure you are all still rattled by the horrific murders of innocent Israelis recently reported in the media. What is the correct response when tragedy strikes?  Let’s go back 2000 years to another turbulent time in our history — the time of Chanukah.  Rav Shimshon Pincus says that that the power of this holiday is that we stayed loyal, when faced with tragedy and war, or with an enticing Greek culture. The miracle of Chanukah, of the oil staying lit for eight days happened because we lit the menorah knowing that there wasn’t enough oil, but trusting that Hashem will provide. To preserve our ancestors’ trust and to strengthen my loyalty and yours, today, we will all make oily food on Chanukah. Many of you already make latkes, but did you know that sufganyot are actually an older tradition?  In Israel they are definitely the leading Chanukah treat, but in America, latkes outrun them. I say, ‘Let’s bring a little bit of Israel into our lives and enjoy the sufganyot experience!’”

After capturing our attention and persuading us that this subject is important, the speaker   proceeded to do a cooking demonstration for the class. It culminated with our sampling the donuts she had baked the night before. They were delicious.  She got an “A.”   Her speech fulfilled the requirements set over two thousand years ago by Aristotle’s Rhetoric: it had ethos, pathos and logos.  And a little something more. It targeted not just our intellect and our emotions, but also our souls.    

You might think that this speech was a tough act to follow. Not necessarily. The young woman who spoke next that day taught us “How to Have Fun with Numbers.” She proved the truth of her equation: “Mathematics = Poetry.” To demonstrate the importance of her subject, she spoke about the significance of numerical precision in the Torah.

Because of their backgrounds, their Torah studies, their families, their histories, my students have rich resources at their disposal upon which they can draw, and they expect themselves and each other to access those resources. And they do. Easily. Naturally. They are capable of injecting the spiritual into the material; they know how to elevate the mundane. They are able to do so whether they teach each other how to bake brownies, or challah, or how to entertain guests, or how to pack a suitcase, or how to play the guitar. “We know that in the Beis Hamekdash music was a very serious thing; the Leviim had to know how to sing and play,” the guitar teacher argued. “Every morning during prayers we recite “the song at the sea,” and every Passover we read the “Song of Songs” – the ultimate love song between G- and the Jewish people.”

Sometimes the spiritual side is obvious, and other times it is subtle, but the “A” speeches in my class always have it. And though I am known as a tough grader, I give more “A’s” in my speech class than in the others – which is another reason, why Communication 101 is my favorite class.

The most challenging class I teach at TCLA is Comp 101. What to teach in this class and how to teach it has been confounding English Departments for almost half a century, since the Writing Crisis began following the sixties’ protest movements against grammar rules and grammar textbooks. My first teaching job was for “Writing Programs,” a newly established department at UCLA created in the 1980’s by my mentor, Dr. Richard Lanham.  Still there today, it employs an army of Writing Specialists to address the ever growing writing and literacy crisis. English professors everywhere would prefer to avoid Freshman Comp like the plague, but it’s a requirement that supports us all!  At TCLA, I’ve enjoyed teaching comp more than anywhere else. My writers have the two motivators without which, as Dr. Lanham argued in his Style: An Anti-Textbook, good writing is impossible: something to say and people to listen. Students write about subjects they care about for peers who relate.

Here is an example from a young woman writing about her hero — “a ninety year old man whose deep wrinkles only portray his wisdom”:

…My grandfather grew up in Kashan, Iran, and was the youngest in a family of five. When the Jews of Iran started being persecuted, he, my grandmother, and their six children fled to Los Angeles.  …  At Shabbat dinner, my grandfather makes it a priority to bring the family together, so we can relish each other’s stories. He loves watching his children and grandchildren fill up his quiet home with noise and laughter.  He inspires us to love our culture and cherish our heritage. Many years ago, he brought back traditional gold bangles from Iran; he gave one to each of his granddaughters to remind them of where our family comes from.  He told us that like us, the bracelets are not perfect, but each bump and curve is what makes them beautiful, just like this family.

The personal essay assignment offers glimpses into the writer’s life which often become an inspiration and an illumination to us all. Here is another passage written by a young man who travels many miles to get to our college:

In Laguna, come Saturday, everyone heads down PCH to the beach.  Teens driving there in their convertibles with their surfboards might be surprised to see two religious Jews walking in full black and white garb and heading to shul.  The sparkling blue ocean, with the crashing waves and palm tree studded beaches combine with the sounds of beautiful exotic sport cars racing down the hills. We stop intermittently to chat with the different locals in the neighborhood – Laguna people are very friendly. The congregation we belong to is a small eclectic gathering of adults, each with his or her unique story about how he or she ended up in Laguna.  Because there were not many kids in shul, I was forced to be with adults, who in turn taught me their wise ways. I learned how to entertain and mingle with the many travelers that came through the city. I have been very lucky to meet many wise people who have taught me so many important life lessons.

I have many similarly beautiful examples of essays written by my students, essays that reveal their love of family, their appreciation for their parents and grandparents, and their deep love of Judaism.  In both my speech and my comp classes, we listen to each other; sometimes we laugh and sometimes we even cry; all of us grow not just as writers and speakers but also as human beings.  

The most stimulating class I teach at TCLA is World Lit.  Here is where I get to teach the great books that drove me to get an English PhD in the first place. When we read, we bring our entire selves to the literature. At Touro, I allow myself the luxury of discussing literature not only in formal, academic terms, but also in life terms – in the context of the backgrounds and experiences that make our texts relevant to our lives. The first work we study is Sophocles’ Antigone, a Greek tragedy about a young woman who resisted tyranny and injustice. I invite my students to write their first essays comparing and contrasting Antigone to a similar figure from history, contemporary life, or their own families. Semester after semester, a few students write about brave relatives. Here’s one example that moved us deeply:

Christopher Reeve once said, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.” Antigone, Sophocles’ fictional heroine, risked her life to bury her brother, despite King Creon’s public announcement that “death is the penalty” for anyone who defies his decree to allow the body of “the traitor Polynices” to be “devoured by dogs and vultures.”   Antigone bravely confronts her uncle, the King. “The law of a mere man cannot defy that of the immortal Gods. The law lives not only for today and yesterday, but forever.” Like Antigone, my grandmother, of blessed memory, stared death in the face and risked her life to save thousands of Jews, all of whom were entitled to the right of life. Born in Hungary, Grandmother was sent to Auschwitz, and from there to an ammunition factory where her job was to separate defective and functioning bullets into two separate barrels. Like Antigone, my grandmother was faced with a moral dilemma. Should she comply with an unjust edict or should she follow her conscience and risk torture and death?

Like some of my students’ parents and grandparents, I grew up in a repressive society during dark times. I was raised in communist Romania, under the dictatorship of Nicolae Ceausescu. My father, Ion Eremia, now known as the “Romanian Solzhenitsyn,” was condemned to twenty-five years in prison for writing a political satire called Gulliver in the Land of Lies. My mother and her family lived through the Holocaust. Perhaps due to this traumatic background, I sometimes get anxious when I read the morning paper or listen to the news. But then I drive to Touro College and the clouds disperse. Seeing my students’ faces, listening to their voices assures me that these young people, like the generations before them, will continue to fulfill their mission and bring light to the world.  

Irina Eremia Bragin is the chair of the English department at Touro College, Los Angeles.  She is the author of the memoir, Subterranean Towers: A Father-Daughter Story. You can read her op-ed on Esther Lowy here.

Teachers get a lesson in propaganda

Propaganda can come in many forms — even board games.

When local educators gathered Dec. 5 for a teaching workshop presented by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, they were exposed to World War II-era posters, films, photographs and a disturbing board game from the 1930s called “Jews Out!”

The game had eerie resemblances to classics such as Chutes and Ladders and Candy Land, mixed with unflattering cartoons of Jews. The goal of the game was to drive Jews out of Germany, and different spaces on the board showed images of Jewish businesses that needed to be eliminated.

Israel Bautista, who teaches at El Sereno Middle School, found the materials and discussion styles expanded his paradigm on how propaganda should be taught to younger students.

“It is a good critical analysis tool, because in today’s day and age, with teens being bombarded with images on social media and traditional media, everything is coming at them so quickly that kids need to critically look at those images rather than just be easily influenced,” he said. “It is important for them to put serious thought into what goes into the messages they are told on a daily basis.”

National Recording Service Adolf Hitler – Our Leader!” from the museum’s propaganda exhibition

The free event at the Los Angeles Central Library, “Connecting the Past and Present: A New Framework for Teaching Propaganda,” enabled about 50 attendees to explore content and themes from the museum’s traveling exhibition, “State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda.” It is scheduled to run from March 10 to May 8 at the library and illustrates the Nazis’ use of the latest technologies and techniques to disseminate propaganda, among other things.

“State of Deception” is well-traveled, having been staged in Chicago; Phoenix; Cleveland; St. Louis; Kansas City, Mo.; and Tulsa, Okla. After leaving L.A., it will move on to Austin, Texas; and New Orleans. 

“State of Deception” teacher workshop.

Classroom-ready teaching resources, previewed by those educators in attendance, will be made available to any teacher interested in integrating the innovative materials and teaching methods into their curriculum. Materials can be accessed and downloaded at

Gina Nahai: Leonard’s story

Years ago, I created a class, “Writer’s Marketplace,” dedicated to the business side of writing. It was inspired by all the I-wish-I’d-known-then-what-I-know-now moments in my own career, the realization that good writers often are clueless about how to sell their work, and that writing schools are often remiss in communicating the practical aspects of the profession to their students. I’m not talking about every third rich housewife who’s bored with her charities and aged out of volunteering at her kids’ schools, who pays a vanity press or an online publisher a few hundred dollars and produces what a friend of mine calls “a booklike object” she can sell to her charity and school friends. My concern is the truly talented writer who takes out a $100,000 loan, spends three years in graduate school writing a novel or a screenplay, then drops out of the race because he’s too broke and in debt and disheartened. 

So I teach the class every semester, start and end it with a firm the-only-rule-is-that-there-are-no-rules announcement, then spend 13 weeks belaboring the rules. One of these, as you might imagine, is, “Whatever you do, don’t quit your day job.” Not when you’re in graduate school, not while you’re finishing the work, not even after you’ve got a contract and cashed your first check. Unless you have a $2 million deal and no mortgage, children or dogs: Don’t quit your day job. 

There are many reasons for this, not all of them financial. I was busy enumerating these for my new class at the start of last semester when a student interrupted me. 

“So what would you say,” he asked, “to a person who’s quit a steady job with a pension and gone into debt and moved across the state just to come here and write?” 

For a minute, I was truly at a loss. Nothing good; especially if you’re older, as you seem to be. 

“Is that you?” I asked, and he nodded. 

“Do you have a rich wife?” And is she willing to support you for the rest of your life, if need be?

He shook his head. 

“A lot of savings?” 

He shook his head again. 

I weighed the benefits of telling an enthusiastic new student that he had done a crazy thing he couldn’t easily undo against the temptation to admire his reckless disregard for reality in favor of pursuing a dream. 

“I’d say you’d better write a great book and make sure it’s published.” 

That was in January. By August, Leonard had written 100 pages of a novel, a few short stories and a screenplay. He was 51 years old, a former river-rafting guide and public school teacher who had give up a steady income with summers off and health insurance to be a full-time writer. He wasn’t going to waste a minute. Right before school started this fall, he wrote to say he wanted to mail to me his novel so we could work on it as his thesis project. Two days later, he died.  

Just like that. He had been walking four miles a day and doing hot yoga two out of every three days. He was gifted, exuberant, charming and optimistic. He was writing a big book, full of intrigue and adventure and beautiful young people who didn’t think twice before risking life and limb in defense of a noble idea. Then he developed a cough, went to see his doctor. 

The first thought that occurred to me after the initial blow of the news itself was that I had yet to receive the novel he had mailed. I had read enough of it in the previous semester to know the plot and the characters; now, I was taken by the thought that they were all floating out there on paper and on line, orphaned and disconnected from their creator, yes, but existing nevertheless. Leonard’s life was over, but these other characters continued to exist. They wouldn’t disappear because he did, but nor would they grow up or old. They’d be frozen in time, so many Dorian Grays who would outlast both the painter and the canvas upon which he drew them. 

Then I thought about the conversation we had that first day in the Marketplace class. What if he hadn’t quit his job when he did, waited through a few more of what he once called “soul-crushing years,” saved his money, planned for retirement? 

At the memorial service we held for Leonard at USC, one side of the chapel was occupied entirely by men and women in loud Hawaiian shirts. These were Leonard’s writing buddies who honored him by dressing in his favorite get-up. The opposite side of the room was lined with prim and proper women in pearls and sweater sets — Leonard’s relatives, one of whom, it turned out, had met him only once. In the middle was as eclectic a group as you’ll find in any memorial: fraternity buddies, fellow white-water rafting guides, middle-school teachers, a guy who ran the cigar bar where Leonard played chess for three hours every Saturday afternoon, members of our own faculty. You could tell, just by scanning the room, that Leonard had had a few, rather divergent, lives. But you had to hear people speak about him to realize that the single constant narrative thread throughout those lives had been his dream of being a writer. 

“I warned him against leaving his life and coming down here to write,” every person who stood up to talk confessed. “I said it’s a bad idea. I’m so glad he didn’t listen.” 

I, too, am glad he didn’t listen — to them or to me or to any voice other than his own impatient heart. 

What would I say, these days, to any reasonably sane person about to trash his income, job title and daily agenda in favor of chasing a fantasy? I hope no one asks, because if they do, I’ll have to tell them Leonard’s story, how good sense and planning, hard work and patience may not be such a good idea after all.

Gina Nahai is an author and a professor of creative writing at USC. Her latest novel is “Caspian Rain” (MacAdam Cage, 2007). Her column appears monthly in the Journal.

Fried millipedes and life in China

The best way to tell if a city has a sizable Jewish population, as my father used to say, is by the number of good Chinese restaurants. 

The same cannot be said of China itself, of course, which has a billion Chinese but hardly enough Jews to make a minyan. Still, the undeniable affinity between the Chinese people and the Jewish people is very much in evidence in “Kosher Chinese: Living, Teaching, and Eating With China’s Other Billion” (Holt: $15) by Michael Levy, a funny, endearing and fascinating account of his sojourn in China, where he quickly earned the nickname “the Friendship Jew.”

The Peace Corps sent Levy to China in 2005 to teach English in the city of Guiyang. From the outset, as we learn in Levy’s utterly winning book, he suffered a kind of continuous culture shock. When he was offered a bowl of deep-fried millipedes, it was less a matter of kashrut than visceral revulsion that put him off — “I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable” — but he played the kosher card: “I’m a little different than most Americans,” he demurred. “I’m a Jew.” He quickly discovered that his Jewish identity had some interesting resonances in a communist country.

“Comrade Marx was a Jew,” said one of his hosts. “So was Einstein,” said another. And a third man observed: “Why would the CIA send us a Jew?”

When Levy dreamed of China, he confesses, he dreamed of “rice paddies and kung fu, egg rolls and Chairman Mao.” When he landed in Chengdu, what he found was a “an unregulated,

crony-capitalist dream, generating a thick, pore-clogging smog,” a totalitarian country where some 40,000 full-time Internet censors are at work to maintain “the Great Firewall of China,” and a place where one quickly needed to master the niceties of the “squat toilet.” He is soon eating pork dumplings, which represents a compromise of his vegetarianism rather than his Judaism, and when he eyes the tantalizing hemline of one of his fellow teachers, he writes, “I had unkosher thoughts.” 

Levy allows us to understand the twists and turns that both separate and unite America and China. A communist official tells him, “Chinese women want to ‘become white like Michael Jackson.’ ” The town where he is assigned to teach, he discovers, has not one, but two Walmarts.  On his first day of class, his students debate among themselves whether he is a “foreigner” or a “foreign devil.” When asked to choose English names to use in class, one student calls herself by the colloquial English word for a young cat, which occasions a frank discussion of American euphemisms and their Chinese equivalents; the young woman eventually chooses a synonym: “Kitten.” 

He is quickly recruited to serve as leader of the Guizhou University Jewish Friday Night English and Cooking Corner Club, which serves as an occasion for some lively cultural exchanges, some highly inventive culinary adventures and much practice at what he calls “Crazy English.” He joins a basketball team and learns how the hot-button issue of Taiwan can affect the world of sports. He is much sought after for advice on everything from relationships to real estate, and for information on all aspects of being American and being Jewish. Indeed, the fact that he is Jewish is a matter of intense interest among his Chinese acquaintances, which helps to explain why one best-selling book in China is titled “Jewish People’s Secrets for Success.”

Sometimes it’s hard to tell whether Levy is playing for laughs or if his experiences in China were as comical as he makes them out to be, but there are plenty of moments of laugh-out-loud humor in “Kosher Chinese.” Levy is still working as a schoolteacher, but he would make a gifted sitcom writer. When asked to describe how Christmas is celebrated in America, for example, he tells his students how American Jews engage in “the yearly ritual of spending Christmas Eve in a Chinese restaurant.”

“Is that because Comrade Marx was Jewish, and China upholds his belief?” asks one Chinese student.

“No,” answers Levy. “It’s because everything else is closed.”

Thus does Levy earn his nickname, “Friendship Jew.” Indeed, he succeeds in charming the reader just as he charmed his friends, colleagues and students in China. “We Chinese cannot trust a person until we have been drunk with them,” one young man tells Levy. “It’s only after much drinking that we can see each other’s true minds.” That’s exactly how I felt about Michael Levy after the pleasurable and sometimes uproarious experience of seeing China through his eyes.

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs on books at

The joy of teaching

After teaching for 50 years, Adina Bender is looking forward to retiring this June — sort of.

The petite, auburn-haired woman crinkles her nose when she contemplates leaving Valley Beth Shalom (VBS) Day School, her home away from home for half a century.

“I asked another teacher, ‘How do you know when it’s time to retire?’ and she said, ‘You just know,’ ” said Bender, 71, strolling the sunny, outdoor halls of the school on a recent morning. “Well, I don’t know. I love these children so much. But 50 sounded like a good number.”

To her colleagues at the school, and to the entire VBS community, it’s a number worthy of the highest praise and recognition. At the synagogue’s annual fundraiser on Feb. 20, organizers honored Bender with a tribute program during which a lineup of local Jewish dignitaries — including U.S. Congressman Brad Sherman, VBS Rabbis Edward Feinstein and Harold Schulweis and Builders of Jewish Education (BJE) Executive Director
Gil Graff — applauded Bender’s classroom creativity and commitment to Jewish education.

But Bender, in her husky, Israeli-accented voice, said her reason for staying on so long is more tangible: “The kids are so sweet and enthusiastic — and delicious.”

For nearly two decades, starting in 1960, Bender taught at VBS’ Hebrew school, an after-school program that had her teaching up to 45 kids at a time. When the synagogue opened its day school in 1978, she took a position at the helm of the second-grade class, where she has remained ever since.

It’s been a dream career for someone who said she’d wanted to be a teacher ever since she was a child in Tel Aviv.

That dream took shape after Bender met her husband, Ilan, as soldiers in the Israel Defense Forces. After an army-style wedding on a kibbutz in Gaza — complete with a chuppah held up by pitchforks and rifles — the pair saved up and moved to the United States on student visas. Ilan studied engineering while Bender enrolled in teaching classes at the former University of Judaism (now American Jewish University).

As luck would have it, one of Bender’s professors was Rabbi Ben-Zion Bergman, who then doubled as spiritual leader of VBS. Bergman invited Bender to teach at the Encino congregation, and the rest is history.
Bender believes a Jewish education is crucial, especially for children in the Diaspora.

“In Israel, you know you’re Jewish because you live it every day,” she said. “Here, how do you know unless you’re taught? You have to learn who you are and what you stand for, and your heritage.”

During her 50-year career, Bender estimates that she has taught the Hebrew language and Judaica to more than 1,500 children. Multiple generations of the same families have passed through her classroom — in one family alone, she said, she has taught a boy’s great-uncle, father and the child himself.

And while English names were never her strong point, Bender is proud to relate that she remembers almost every student’s Hebrew name.
Jewish day schools were not abundant when Bender was raising her own three children — who include Rabbi Karen Bender, associate rabbi of Temple Judea in Tarzana —  but she’s glad that five of her grandchildren have gotten a day-school education at VBS.

Leaving the school in June will force a change of routine to which she will have to adapt:  “Whenever I go driving, my car automatically leaves the freeway at the Haskell exit,” she said.
Bender’s love for her job is evident as she walks around the campus between classes on a recent morning. She doles out hugs with almost every “hello” and receives enthusiastic smiles — often missing baby teeth — in return.

She has given more than just her time to her students, too. In 1993, Bender won a Milken Family Foundation Jewish Educator Award and donated the $10,000 gift to VBS to create a scholarship fund for families who might not otherwise be able to afford the cost of day school.

“I hate the thought that there are Jewish kids who can’t go to a Jewish school,” she said. “It breaks my heart. We lose so many good kids because they can’t afford it. I pray to God we can raise enough money to help them.”

Now, Bender also wants to establish another type of award at the school — a “Mensch of the Year” honor given annually to a graduating sixth-grader. The prize — an Israeli bond — would not be for students with the best grades, she said, but rather for students who are “good-hearted, kind, who give tzedakah and help others.”

The award ceremony would also be a boon to the retired Bender: “It would give me an excuse to come back every year,” she admitted with a laugh.

With her newly acquired free time, Bender plans to take classes in topics such as art history and politics, and to do volunteer work. “I’m too energetic to sit at home,” she said. “I’m never tired.”
At the tribute program at VBS, Sheva Locke, head of the day school, addressed a modestly smiling Bender in front of the synagogue audience.

“You are a legend, larger than life — there is only one Adina Bender,” Locke said. “You understand the importance of passing on our rituals through language and skills, but what makes you unique is your kavanah — your passion and intention. You make each child shine and nurture their souls.”

Tamar Raff, director of Judaic studies at the school, praised Bender’s unflagging devotion throughout her career. “Adina is as animated about teaching today as she was a generation ago,” she said. “She loves what she does, and you can feel it every time you enter her classroom.”

Graff gave Bender a certificate of appreciation from the BJE. Congressman Sherman presented her with a flag that had flown over the Capitol. When Bender took the podium to address the audience, her first words were, “Oy, I can’t believe this is happening to me.”

The synagogue is planning to dedicate an original mural, titled “Seeds of Learning,” at the day school’s new community garden in Bender’s honor.

“You have to really love kids, otherwise teaching doesn’t work,” Bender said of her guiding philosophy over the years. “I do hope that I’ve left an impact.”

Hamas Leader Denies Holocaust, Objects To UN Plan To Teach Gaza Children About Holocaust


A Hamas spiritual leader on Monday called teaching Palestinian children about the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews a “war crime,” rejecting a suggestion that the U.N. might include the Holocaust in Gaza’s school curriculum.

A senior Israeli official said such statements should make the West think twice about ending its boycott of Hamas, in place since the group seized Gaza by force in 2007. Israeli officials called the comments as “obscene” and said they place Hamas in a pariah club of Holocaust deniers that includes Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Read the full story at

The fear of silence

Robert Geminder was six years old when he heard the dogs barking. He was hiding in a little pantry with his older brother, George. His mother, Bertl, would always tell them to be extra quiet, because you never knew when “the soldiers” would show up.

When the dogs got louder, he figured the German soldiers would soon open the pantry door and find him and his brother, crouching in the corner. He didn’t figure that his mother, with the help of his grandmother, Golde, would think of stacking firewood in front of the pantry to disguise the smell of the boys. But that’s what they did, and it worked. The dogs and their Nazi bosses left, and Robert and his brother could breathe again.

This was in 1941 in Stanislawow, Poland. Two years earlier, at the beginning of World War II, Robert was a 4-year-old living in a nice neighborhood in Bielsko in Southern Poland. In August of 1939, when the Germans invaded Poland, Robert’s town was devastated by the blitzkrieg. His father, Mendel “Mano” Geminder, died of a heart attack while trying to barricade a living room window with a mattress. As the troops invaded, his grandfather was executed on the streets, leaving Robert, George, Bertl and Golde homeless and on the run.

They tried to flee to Russia but were turned back. Eventually, they ended up in Stanislawow, in one of 300 Jewish ghettos that the Germans had set up throughout countries like Poland, Hungary and Romania. Before the war, about 3 million Jews lived in Poland, the largest concentration of Jews in the world. It’s estimated that 97 percent of those Jews died.

To this day, Geminder can’t quite fathom how he ended up in the 3 percent that survived.

It helps, though, that this 72-year-old retired engineer and now schoolteacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District has a very sharp memory. As he shares story after story of his many escapes and close calls and plain old suffering (“I was hungry for six years,” he says), it’s clear that there were at least two reasons for his survival.

Extraordinary luck and an amazing mother.

One of his closest calls came on a winter day in 1942 when he was one of 20,000 Jews taken to a cemetery near Stanislawow. There, Jews were greeted by German snipers who shot them and pushed their bodies into mass graves. Geminder and his family were “lucky” enough to be among the first batch of Jews to arrive, which meant they were at the back when the shooting started. By the time the snipers got to them, after mowing down about 16,000 other Jews, it was dark and had started to snow, so the Germans took them back to their ghetto.

They survived there for a couple of years. On those rare times when the young Geminder was not hiding in closets, he remembers seeing “daily hangings and children being killed and thrown against walls.”

One day his mother heard a rumor that the entire ghetto was to be “liquidated.” Her rabbi told her to do whatever she could to “get the children out,” so she came up with an escape plan with the help of a girlfriend. The two women hid the boys under their skirts as they walked out of the ghetto walls, ostensibly to go to their “slave labor” jobs. They never came back. Geminder’s grandmother, the rabbi and everyone else never made it out.

For the next three years, until the end of the war, the Geminder clan — which by now also included Emil Brotfeld, a man who would later become Geminder’s stepfather — wandered throughout Poland living on their wits and courage and hoping only to stay alive.

As he sits now in his modest home in Rancho Palos Verdes, where he has lived for 42 years and where he and his wife Judy are active members of the Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid, Geminder tells me he’s got “maybe a hundred” stories of how they just barely made it.

“One of those things goes wrong,” he says, “and I’m not here talking to you.”

But while he’s got many stories of survival, there’s one story in particular he keeps bringing up: On May 11, Geminder will don a graduation cap and walk with students less than half his age to receive his degree in education from Loyola Marymount University.

He’s especially proud of that story. But why would a man get a teaching degree 48 years after graduating from university with an engineering degree?

He can’t say for sure, but he thinks it has something to do with the fact that he loves talking to people, especially young students. For as long as he can remember, early May has been “his busy period,” when Jewish organizations from across the country recruit Holocaust survivors like Geminder to tell their stories in schools and other venues. So Geminder knows from talking in noisy classrooms, and what job could be better than schoolteacher for someone who loves to talk?

In fact, when you talk to Geminder, the theme of talking and making noise is never too far from his mind. What seems to haunt him most from his childhood as a “wandering survivor” is not the fear of hunger or the fear of death — but the fear of silence. It’s those hundreds of “shhhs” he would hear while spending most of that childhood hiding in silence.

He prayed that if he ever made it out alive, and had children of his own, that he would never be forced to keep them quiet. This is another way of saying that Geminder wasn’t too hard on his three children, who are now grown-up, when they got a little, say, rambunctious.

Sixty-six years after crouching in a pantry in forced silence, Robert Geminder, survivor and proud new graduate, defines his freedom as having no fear to make a little noise.

Last October, VideoJew Jay Firestone taped survivor Eva Brown’s story at her home in David Suissa’s Pico-Robertson hood.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and He can be reached at

Key rule for teachers: Never, ever turn your back on a 6-year-old

Two years ago, my father came to watch me in action in my first-grade classroom at Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center. After two hours, he turned to me and said, “I don’t know how you do what you do!”

And the little voice inside my head said, “There are days I’m not sure why I do what I do.”

So I’ve given the question some thought, and I’ve come up with some answers.

How do I do it?

Well, I’ve mastered the three cardinal rules of teaching first grade:

  1. Consider first grade a runaway train — hang on or fall off. And I imagine that falling off must be pretty painful.
  2. Never, ever turn your back on a 6-year-old.
  3. Do not think for very long how or why you do something, or you might not be doing it too much longer.

In my first-grade world, where my students tell it like it is, I have been told the following:

“Morah Malka, you did not do your best work today.”

“You don’t look so good. Maybe you would like to lie down.”

“What do you mean there is no PE or library today. We have you all day?”

And, my all-time favorite: “Do you know how many little girls you are killing with such hard papers?”

But, I have also been told: “I love you like my mother” and “I wish you were my mother.”

“Every night before I go to sleep, I listen to your voice on the homework hotline. That is the last thing I hear before I go to sleep. I hear you, and I know that everything is going to be OK.”

So why do I teach?

Well, not many people get to start their day with 35 voices praying to Hashem. I call it my “Ta’am Gan Eden,” my taste of the world to come.

Why do I teach?

Because of a little boy named Eliezer, whom I found sitting under my desk, bemoaning the fact that he was never going to get married. His mother had told him the night before that if he did not learn how to read, no Jewish woman would ever love him.

And, as we sat together in the dark under my desk, we made a pact that I would do my best to teach him how to read, and he would do his best to learn. If all else failed, I told him, I would search to the ends of the earth to find him a girl who would marry him.

Seventeen years later, I received an invitation to Eliezer’s wedding. During high school, his family had moved to Israel, and he met a wonderful Israeli woman. There was a note inside, which read: “I knew exactly where to send this, because you are the type of teacher who loves doing what she does. I knew that you would still be doing it.”

There was also a note from his kallah, his bride: “You were right. I would have loved him even if he did not know how to read.”

So how do we teach?

With God-given strength and talent and a large dose of patience.

And why do we teach?

Just ask our students. They will tell it like it is!

Mona Riss, a 36-year educator, teaches first grade at Emek Hebrew Academy Teichman Family Torah Center. This article is adapted from a speech she gave upon accepting a 2007 Jewish Educators Award from the Milken Family Foundation.

LimmudLA: 4,000 years of Jewish history in one hour

David Solomon

With white butcher paper stretching around the room, David Solomon hurriedly scrawls timelines with his thick black marker, delineating 250-year blocks of time.

“Dudes, don’t try this at home,” he jokes with the audience of mostly 20- and 30-something participants.

In the space of the next hour — plus an extra 10 to 15 minutes thrown in for good measure — Solomon outlines the 4,000 years of Jewish history, from 2000 B.C.E. to the present. Each white paper wall represents 1,000 years, and as Solomon moves from Abraham to the 12 tribes, Moses, the prophets, the First and Second Temples, the Babylonian exile and the “PR stunt” of Chanukah, he works the room, swiveling the audience in its seats as he races from one side of the room to another.

“There’s a purpose to the Jewish people besides handing down the recipe for gefilte fish,” he tells the rapt group. “You don’t have to be frum to believe that the Jewish people have a purpose in the world.”

Welcome to “The Whole of Jewish History in One Hour” and the Solomon agenda, if this charmingly disheveled teacher has one. The 45-year-old Aussie, who says he feels — and acts — much younger than he is, utterly believes in the absolute necessity for Jews to know and understand Jewish history. Dividing the Jewish history timeline into phases provides people with a framework, Solomon says, and shows them “how amazing our history is.”

Solomon will be one of dozens of teachers at LimmudLA Feb. 17-20 in Costa Mesa. The conference will feature a weekend packed with everything Jewish, from text studies to meditation minyans to arts performances. About 600 people are expected to attend the three-day President’s Day weekend event, the first time the worldwide phenomenon is hitting the West Coast.

“In One Hour,” as produced by Solomon and his wife, Marjorie, started out as something of a joke. At the end of 2004, the Solomons had returned to his native Perth after he had spent several years doing postgraduate research in Jewish mysticism at University College London. When Solomon was invited to address a conference of Jewish high school students, he somewhat flippantly came up with the idea of covering the whole of Jewish history in one hour. As the date neared, he found that his talk was being billed as such, and the idea caught on as a more permanent concept.

“It’s really just … a way of making sense of it all, so that people are able to contextualize and comprehend the history,” Solomon says.

“In One Hour” is designed for a wide range of people, Solomon says. Some participants may simply want a better understanding of the framework of Jewish history, others may have a more solid background but haven’t been able to envision the entire timeline.

During the talk, Solomon throws in Hebrew terms and names and does not translate. He sees the use of Hebrew as an important part of acculturating his audience to “speak about Jewish things in Jewish terms.”

“There may be a gap between who it was designed for and who turns up,” Solomon says. “It’s a talk that attempts to give meaning; you don’t have to believe in God.”

In some ways, Solomon’s “In One Hour” is the Jewish History 101 of the Taglit-Birthright Israel age. While successfully branding a new approach to a subject that may have faded in popularity, Solomon is very serious about his desire to use Jewish history as a method of propelling students toward more serious Jewish study.

He wants them to learn Hebrew and Jewish history as a “method of self empowerment,” because he believes that the Jewish people have “lost” their “perspective.” Looking back at Jewish history — the Golden Age of Spain lasted a mere 700 years –Solomon wants to show the Jewish community outside of Israel that nothing lasts forever.

Learning Hebrew is a crucial part of Solomon’s proposed framework. He sees the Hebrew language as the “gateway to Torah” and believes that Hebrew and living in Israel are the only ways to “authentically renew” Jewish spirituality.

Solomon himself took what he calls “a spiritual exile” from the Jewish world for some 10 years and now calls himself a secular Jew who keeps mitzvot (commandments). He grew up in a Sabbath-observant family in Perth, attending Jewish day school and then a Lubavitch-run college in Melbourne, followed by yeshiva in Israel. After living in London and Australia, he and his wife moved to Israel late last year after it became “increasingly apparent that we didn’t feel at home anywhere except Israel.”

Now living in Tel Aviv, the Solomons travel regularly, bringing “In One Hour” to communities in England, the United States and Australia. The format has evolved into an entire series, branching into other subjects, including Bible, philosophy, women in Jewish history and Hebrew, as well as an expanded, nine-session version of the history course.

“I’m not interested in hoisting my own petard,” says Solomon, as intense in conversation as he is in teaching. “There really isn’t a script to this. The narrative just comes out, and these,” he says, pointing at the time-lined walls, “are the headlines.”

For more information on LimmudLA, visit

Briefs: Jewish Sports Hall of Fame picks honorees; Israeli Consulate welcomes you to MySpace

Jewish Sports Hall of Fame picks honorees — Lyle Alzado tops listlyle alzadoThe National Football League’s Lyle Alzado, boxing champ Bob Olin and Israeli swimmer Keren Leibowitz are among seven athletes and sports personalities elected to the International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

At 6-foot-3 and 245 pounds, Alzado was a fearsome presence on the gridiron. He starred for 15 seasons, from 1971-1985, at defensive end and tackle for the Denver Broncos, Cleveland Browns and Los Angeles Raiders, registering 97 sacks in 196 games. He was named All-Pro three times and All-AFC defensive lineman six times.

Olin defeated reigning champion “Slapsie” Maxie Rosenbloom in a 15-round decision to win the world light-heavyweight boxing crown in 1934. He lost the title a year later to John Henry Lewis.

As Israel’s most celebrated Paralympic athlete, Leibowitz won three gold medals in the freestyle and backstroke at the 2000 Sidney Paralympics, following up four years later at Athens with one gold, two silver and one bronze.

Also named were Morris “Whitey” Bimstein, a legendary trainer and corner “cutman” for 25 world boxing champs over a 50-year career, including Jack Dempsey, Gene Tunney, Max Baer and Rocky Marciano.

Joe Reichler was the ranking Associated Press baseball writer from 1943-1966. The author of more than a dozen baseball books, he was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame in 1980.

Al Schacht was forced by injuries to retire as pitcher for the Washington Senators and transformed himself into “The Clown Prince of Baseball,” performing at major and minor league ballparks for nearly 50 years.

Earl Strom officiated as basketball referee in 2,400 regular NBA season games, earning the title of “The greatest referee.” He was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1955.

Except for Leibowitz, all the honorees are deceased.

The International Jewish Sports Hall of Fame is located on the campus of Israel’s Wingate Institute for Physical Education and Sports in Netanya.

A total of 328 athletes and sports personalities from 24 countries have been elected to the Hall of Fame since 1979.

— Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Teachers Offered Credit for Holocaust Workshop

All the main players in Holocaust education in Los Angeles have combined forces to offer a workshop on “The Relevance of Teaching the Holocaust in the 21st Century,” aimed at helping teachers get across to their students both the factual history of the Holocaust and ways to apply the lessons of the Holocaust to their own lives and the world around them.

To be held on five consecutive Thursday evenings beginning Jan. 31, the workshop is designed for middle and high school levels, but elementary school teachers will also gain insights and benefits.

The program will include training in “Echoes and Reflections: A Multimedia Curriculum on the Holocaust,” developed through a partnership between the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), the USC Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and Yad Vashem. Those organizations are sponsoring the workshop, along with the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance and the Center for Excellence on the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, Human Rights, and Tolerance, and was developed in cooperation with The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, the Los Angeles Unified School District, United Teachers Los Angeles and the “1939” Club.

Registration is $65 (before Jan. 21), $75 after, which includes a kosher dinner each session, all learning materials and handouts, plus credit toward books or videos for classroom use. Educators completing the workshop are entitled to salary points from Los Angeles Unified School District, in-service credit from the Bureau of Jewish Education and may receive University Extension units from California State University.

For more information, contact Matthew Friedman at the ADL, (310) 446-8000, ext. 231, or e-mail Advance registration is required and space is limited.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Israeli Consulate, Welcome to MySpace

The Consulate General of Israel in Los Angeles may be a few years late to the revolution, but it’s making connections with a new profile on, the social networking Web site.

Since the profile for “My Israel,” age 59, was created in July, little more than two dozen have added the consulate as a friend, although that list does include Madonna (possibly even the Madonna, based on her friend count of nearly 300,000). The consulate officially launched this month, sending out a blast e-mail to drum up interest.

“NOW YOU CAN FIND US (ALSO) ON MYSPACE,” stated the note, directing recipients to

“The [Foreign] Ministry a while ago understood this is a playing field we need to play in. YouTube, MySpace, Facebook — you’re talking about millions of people,” said Gilad Millo, spokesperson for the L.A. consulate. “This is new media versus old media. And being one of the countries that develops most of the software for new media, Israel needs to play in that.”

Joining the New York consulate — — Los Angeles’ profile includes a blog and is being promoted on the consulate’s home page,

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

A Tu B’Shevat Celebration in Malibu

To celebrate the New Year of Trees this year, head up to the Malibu Mountains for the Shalom Institute’s Community Tu B’Shevat Festival on Sunday, Jan. 27, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. For the 10th year, The Shalom Institute Camp and Conference Center, a beneficiary of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, will offer family activities, including concerts, art projects, hikes and gardening at Camp JCA Shalom. Co-sponsored by the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life of Southern California, Jewish National Fund, Israeli House and the Jewish Federation Valley Alliance, the event has drawn thousands of people in past years to celebrate Tu B’Shevat.

The talmudic New Year of the Trees has become a focal point for Jewish environmentalists.

Hebrew course piques Iranian Jews’ interest

“You teach me Persian, and I’ll teach you Hebrew,” quipped Rabbi Hillel Benchimol to the crowd.Nearly 150 Iranian Jews of various ages had gathered at the Nessah Synagogue in Beverly Hills on Oct. 29 for the third session of a free five-week crash course in Hebrew.

Also known as “Read Hebrew America,” the course has been picked up by nearly 700 synagogues in North America during last 10 years through the National Jewish Outreach Program (NJOP), a nonprofit organization based in New York. The objective is to promote Hebrew learning among American and Canadian Jews who have lost touch with their Jewish identities.

While this is the first year Nessah has participated in the program, its leaders said the free Hebrew course has attracted more than 600 local Iranian Jews to its first three sessions.

“I was really amazed that so many people from this community really want to learn Hebrew and reconnect with their heritage,” said Benchimol, who has been teaching the 90-minute classes on Monday nights since Oct. 15. “You don’t typically see this large of a turnout for Hebrew classes from the Ashkenazim.”

Ilya Welfeld, a spokesperson for the NJOP said her organization was “extremely pleased with the large response” they have received at Nessah. On average, roughly 20 to 80 people attend the “Read Hebrew America” courses in the United States.

Surprisingly, the majority of individuals in attendance for the classes at Nessah were between the ages of 50 and 70. They said they wanted to learn Hebrew because they had been unable to do so previously, due to the difficulties of trying to re-establish themselves in America during the last 25 years.

“I like how people of all ages from our community are here and wanting to learn Hebrew,” said Eliza Ghanooni, a 20-something resident of Beverly Hills. “I think Persian Jews are generally more traditional and have a stronger connection to Judaism.”

A small contingency of younger Iranian Jews were also in attendance and said they had come because they want to speak Hebrew fluently.

While the Nessah class was often sidetracked by individual questions and comments, Benchimol kept the group’s interest by making the group laugh at his witty comments and his efforts to pronounce odd Persian-language words.

“When you’re learning Hebrew, you’ve got to have fun with it, and we’re trying to keep it a light-hearted environment so people will want to come back,” Benchimol said.

A number of non-Iranian Jews visiting Nessah said they were impressed with the excitement Iranian Jews had exhibited in the Hebrew class, and as a result would continue to take the classes at Nessah.

“I’m here to improve my Hebrew because my bar mitzvah is coming up soon, and I want to be able to read from the Torah better,” said Yuji Hasegawa, of West Hollywood, who recently converted to Judaism. “Iranians are loud, but it’s good to see so many of them interested in learning Hebrew.”

Benchimol said after the remaining two sessions of the Hebrew classes are completed, Nessah plans to offer more advanced Hebrew language classes to adults in the coming months.

For more information on the “Read Hebrew America” courses offered at Nessah, call (310) 273-2400 or visit visit

Volunteers drive eclectic learning at LimmudLA

You can feel the ruach in this Limmud UK video

At the Limmud conference in England three years ago, Angeleno Judy Aronson attended a session on the Jews and the Beatles, where she sat next to the former neighbor of Beatle’s manager Brian Epstein. She tried to keep up with Romanians teaching Israeli folk dance, she learned a new way to understand the “Shema” and she discussed Chasidic stories with secular Israelis. After participating in a session on Hebrew poetry, the retired Jewish educator was inspired enough to use her academic Hebrew to write a poem of her own — for the very first time.

Now, Aronson is one of more than 80 volunteers who have jumped at the chance to bring Limmud to Los Angeles this February, giving Southern Californians their first taste of the independent, non-denominational, volunteer-run Jewish learning experience that has swept the Jewish world.

“I never saw people so excited about learning anywhere in my life, and I think that was because everyone felt personally addressed by this conference,” said Aronson, who has chaired major Jewish conferences in the past and will run family and children’s programming for LimmudLA. “It was a very diverse group of attendees, and I felt this tremendous energy for learning and for playing together.”

Limmud was founded 25 years ago in England, where each December more than 2,000 people gather for a five-day conference. In the last six or seven years, the Limmud model has spread around the world, with conferences in Russia, France, Canada, Turkey, Israel, Germany, Australia and New York.

The goal of LimmudLA, slated for Febrary during President’s Day Weekend at the Costa Mesa Hilton, is to bring together the broad spectrum of Los Angeles Jewry to experience the richness of Judaism through intense days packed with the arts, shared meals and conversations, and a quirky and diverse offering of text studies, lectures and workshops. At Limmud, all the teachers are participants, and many of the participants are teachers, so everyone learns from each other.

“It has no objective — not to make you leaders, not to make you more religious, not to make you act politically, not to make you give — other than for you to grow and learn as a Jew,” Holocaust scholar and self-described Limmud addict Deborah Lipstadt told The Jewish Journal.

Organizers are hoping that the non-hierarchical, unifying model will leave a lasting imprint on a community that is geographically and ideologically diffuse.

“I think this is going to be an amazing thing for L.A.,” said LimmudLA co-chair Linda Fife, an educator turned full-time volunteer. “What excites me most is that I don’t think there is any place else where we are coming together in cross-communal conversation.”

The conference, including hotel and all meals, will cost $500 per person (lower for kids), a price tag that covers about two-thirds of the actual costs of hotel, food and programming. Scholarships are available, because organizers don’t want cost to deter people. Attendance is capped at 600, to keep things manageable in the inaugural year.

Organizers are hoping the energy of the conference will counteract the leave-in-the-eighth-inning culture that often plagues Los Angeles events.

Programming from 8 a.m. to 1 a.m., with about 10 sessions offered simultaneously, might include a jam session led by Jewish singing icon Debbie Friedman; a cholent cook-off; yoga; a class in theology with a Reform lay person and another in Jewish history with an Orthodox woman; nature walks; text studies of everything from Genesis to the Talmud to kabbalah; and workshops in bibliodrama, Jewish songwriting or Judaism and astrology. Babysitting, kids programming and teen programming will give parents freedom to attend the sessions, and family programming will offer time with the kids.

But much of the program won’t be set for a while, since most of the presenters, artists and teachers come from the ranks of the conference goers. Online registration, which opens this week at, will ask for attendees to present sessions in their area of expertise — and that will determine most of the programming.

Some more well-known presenters — many of them fans who attend Limmuds all over the world — have already signed on: Rabbi Danny Landes of the Pardes Institute in Israel; Bible and law teacher Arna Fisher; Chabad philosopher Rabbi Manis Friedman; Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt; David Solomon, who has made his name by teaching things like “The Whole of Jewish History in One Hour”; and Jewish World Watch founder Janice Kaminer-Reznick.

But even professionals on the Jewish scholar circuit will not get paid, and will in fact have to pay their own way for the conference. Only a select few — a list that remains secret and is never the same two years in a row — get their travel and conference fee comped.

Many point to this militant egalitarianism, along with souped-up volunteerism, as the key to the sense of ownership that gives Limmud its aura.

“It’s fluid in a very real way,” Fife said. “The definition of what we are about is developed by the people sitting around the table, and they represent a whole conglomeration of the different segments of the community.”

Everything, from fundraising to catering to programming, is handled by volunteers, about 20 of whom are putting in second-job type hours. Only one paid professional, executive director Ruth Rotenberg, pulls the pieces together.

Despite the challenges volunteerism brings — conflicting visions, flakiness, lack of time — organizers say the sense of ownership and diversity of input is what makes Limmud work.

“One of the most meaningful conversations we had was about Shabbat and what Shabbat would look like,” Fife said. “You’re sitting around a table with people for whom the definition of Shabbat is very different from your own. We tend to stay within our own silo communities and throw around vocabulary and terminology and we think everyone understands it the same way we do — and that’s not true. This is wonderful opportunity to really understand others.”

After hours of discussion, the steering committee decided traditional halacha, Jewish law, would be observed in conference-wide venues, such as the communal Friday night dinner, but that smaller venues would have more freedom. Sessions or services with activities that might offend some but are key elements of celebrating Shabbat for others — such as the use of musical instruments or microphones — will be clearly identified, so people could opt out of those.

Kids slip into reading and cozy up with PJ Library

The High Holy Days can be a confusing time for children. It’s not easy for them to understand the sense behind the story of a father who almost sacrifices his son or how a chicken can help take away sins.

Luckily, the answers to these mysteries and many more can be found in a book — and thanks to the Harold Grinspoon Foundation’s PJ Library (as in pajamas), parents around the country are getting those books for free.

The book program, aimed at youngsters from 6 months to 6 years, is meant to encourage a child’s love of reading, and to help children and their parents bond as well as to teach families with young children about Judaism.

“I think reading is absolutely crucial in a child’s life,” said Natalie Blitt, program director for the PJ Library and chair of the book selection committee. “I think the bond that is formed when parent and kids read is unparalleled. It’s how memories are made.”

The program, which by the end of 2007 will reach 10,000 Jewish children in 40 cities, sends out a Jewish-themed, age-appropriate book or CD every month to each child in the program. In December, the program will extend to 7-year-olds.

The foundation is working on bringing the PJ Library — which costs $60 per child, per year (subsidized by the Grinspoon Foundation with the help of philanthropic partners) — to Los Angeles soon.

“We look for books that are going to be great stories,” said Blitt, whose at-home focus group — her own two sons, ages 4 and 2 — also help with book selection. “Our first goal is that these are high-quality books. No child should ever be forced to read a Jewish book.

“The High Holy Day books we chose personify that,” she added, such as “Night Lights: A Sukkot Story,” by Barbara Diamond Goldin, which takes the story of a child who is afraid of the dark and puts a Jewish angle on it with a child sleeping outside in the sukkah for the first time.

Another book, “When the Chickens Went on Strike: A Rosh Hashanah Tale Adapted From a Story by Sholom Aleichem,” by Erica Silverman, puts the kaporos tradition into context for children who might find the custom strange.

Other titles include:

“Apples and Honey: A Rosh Hashanah Lift-The-Flap Book,” which is made for “little hands”; “Gershon’s Monster: A Story for the Jewish New Year,” puts tashlich in a suspenseful story for 6-year-olds; and “It’s Shofar Time,” is a preschooler’s guide to the ram’s horn.

Each book includes a reading guide.

A Grinspoon Foundation survey found that before joining the PJ Library, the families in the program owned five or fewer Jewish children’s books, and only 23 percent of the parents said they were very likely to buy Jewish books or CDs.

However, 75 percent of the participants say they now read the PJ Library books to their children once a week or more. Most gave the program top rankings and said the books spark Jewish conversations among family members. In most of these homes, only one parent is Jewish, or one is a Jew-by-choice. In many cases, both parents grew up with little Jewish culture.

The program sends out holiday-themed books three times a year — at the High Holy Days, at Chanukah and at Passover. The rest of the year participants receive books on other holidays, Shabbat stories, folktales, contemporary stories and stories about Israel.

The PJ Library was created by Harold Grinspoon, a philanthropist from Springfield, Mass., who based the program on Dolly Parton’s Dolly’s Imagination Library, which distributes books to inner-city children.

“Then it occurred to me — this is the ideal project to adapt to the Jewish community,” Grinspoon said. “We need to get Yiddishkeit into the homes of unengaged Jewish families in a positive way.”

In the winter of 2005, he decided to create a way to turn the special moments right before bed, when parents and children snuggle up with a book, into “Jewish moments.”

“We hear from parents that the program is making a huge difference,” Blitt said. “In the way parents talk to their kids, and in the way kids talk to each other and the way they see the Jewish community. We even see PJ Sundays where the entire family gets together to meet other families.”

For additional information and a list of books, CD-roms and readers guides, visit the PJ Library Web site at

‘The Joy (and the Oy) of Cooking’ with kids

It’s all about the food processor.

As long as it involves a whirring blade or a spinning disc that will pulverize anything that has the misfortune to meet it, my 11-year-old son is there.

Yair recently graduated my Cuisinart tutorial, replete with graphic descriptions of what might happen if he managed to override the safety mechanisms meant to keep finger from meeting metal, and he now makes a tangy cucumber and dill salad and a nutty pesto with his weapon of choice.

While Yair, 8-year-old Ezra and 5-year-old Neima usually jump at the chance to help in the kitchen, just peeling carrots or washing parsley can get boring. They want real jobs, and especially during the cooking-intensive weeks of the High Holy Days, giving them more challenging tasks is a good way to hold their interest in all things culinary.

I have been tempted, at times, just to let them get bored and write off cooking, because in all honesty, allowing little chefs into my realm can be a little less than fun. If I have to get 12 dishes cooked in two hours, I don’t have a lot of patience for their messy mixing and inexact measuring, or all the questions about which drawer the fleishig (meat) measuring spoons are in.

So why am I crazy enough to let them handle boxes of powdered sugar and vats of flour?

Because when we cook together, I know that we’re building memories, that getting them comfortable in a kitchen will only be good for them as adults, and that allowing them to do grown-up things builds confidence and pride. They learn some math, and they follow directions, and they take in family and Jewish traditions. Mostly, it’s just fun and messy, and at the end they get to lick the spoons.

And, even though all those things I just listed above so people will think I am really a good mom are true, this story is also about me: While I may spend more time than I’d like to admit at the edge — or just over the edge — of my patience while we cook, when we all sit down to eat Ezra’s popcorn cauliflower or Yair’s confetti cake, I will have forgotten the turmeric that I’m still scrubbing off the wall and will simply enjoy the purer idea of having engaged with my kids in such a primal and organic activity.

Apparently the kids forgive my snapping and yelling through a good portion of our bonding experience, because they always are up for more.

And there are perks: I have found that as my kids have gotten older, their help is the real kind of help, not the keep-them-busy kind of help.

When they were toddlers, I would plop them right up on the counter and they would help me count out the cups of flour, and together we would dump the ingredients into the bowl and then they would help stir. Soon, when they graduated to the stepstool, they could measure out the soy sauce or olive oil themselves. They helped sprinkle the paprika and cumin on the chicken and splashed balsamic vinegar into the marinades.

Now, I can give Yair a recipe, and, with some hovering help from me, he pulls out the ingredients, reads the directions, (grudgingly) gives jobs to Ezra and Neima and produces dishes like chocolate cake and lemon snowball cookies (seriously yum), with only a few burnt fingers or minor cuts. He even cleans up at the end.

Ezra is my salad guy — he washes and tears the greens, and for him giving the lettuce a ride in the salad spinner is an extra boon. He slices up the tomatoes, cukes and peppers with a reasonably sharp knife — dull knives can be more dangerous since they can slip if he puts too much pressure on them.

He and his sister husk corn on the cob and pick oregano and rosemary from our herb garden (I’m showing off again). He can level off a measuring spoon of garlic powder and trim green beans, and if I give him a sink full of pots and pans, the dishes — as well as the counter, the floor and Ezra’s shirt — all get squeaky clean. And if in the middle he is suddenly too tired to finish, that’s tough: In my kitchen, if you start a job, you complete it.

Neima cuts the bananas, strawberries and apples (I preslice them, she cubes them) for fruit salad whenever we have our daddy-is-away-on-business breakfast-for-dinner extravaganza. She is adept with a can opener, but after the recent fingernail incident decided never to peel potatoes again. She washes all sorts of herbs and vegetables, pulls cilantro and basil leaves from the stem, and she can clean out the inside of a pepper better than I can. Bonus: Peppers are now one of approximately three vegetables she’ll eat.

When there are lemons or limes to be squeezed, the kids work out the order of who goes when (or they fight about it until I threaten to throw them out) and then take all their aggression out on the citrus fruit, using a manual juicer. They can all crack eggs with grace, and they know how to check for blood spots that would render the egg unkosher.

One of our favorite things to cook is challah. We throw the ingredients into a bread machine, then a couple hours later take out the dough and braid it. I used to give them each little lumps of dough to make their own personal loaves, because while they washed their hands at the start, after 20 minutes of kneading, the dough turned into a grayish glob of grossness that I wouldn’t eat or feed to anyone else. Soon I gave them larger lumps of dough, and they became expert braiders, making the main challah (after one major meltdown, I learned to explain that the large loaves were for everyone to share, not just for the maker to eat alone).

Now, as Rosh Hashanah approaches, they’re working on mastering the twist-and-twirl technique to create the traditional round Challahs. Between now and Shemini Atzeret, we’ll have to make about 20 loaves, so they’ll get lots of practice. And as long as I can be the super-mom I’ve portrayed myself as in this article, it should be a lot of fun for the whole family.

Can we can the homework, please?

Composer Martin Bresnick’s classically unique style turns 60

Please don’t think that Martin Bresnick is having a “Goodbye, Mr. Chips” moment.
Sure the acclaimed composer and teacher celebrated his 60th birthday last month with a series of concerts and the release of a new CD of his music, “The Essential Martin Bresnick,” performed by a gang of his former students, centered on the Bang on a Can All-Stars and his longtime academic home, the Yale School of Music.

But he’s not the “grand old man” nearing retirement taking a retrospective look back at a parade of his students through a Vaseline-coated lens of memories.

“Well, there is a little bit of that,” Bresnick says, leaning back in the booth in a midtown diner where he has been sampling the apple pie. “But I don’t think of myself in that role. For most of my teaching career I haven’t been that much older than my students. It’s only recently that students stopped calling me Martin. I’m not an authority figure, and our work revolves around a sense of communal discovery.”

Bresnick likes to cite a famous Zen koan about teaching: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

But he is also highly attuned to the teacher-student interplay. He cites as an example his own studies with the great composer Gyorgy Ligeti (coincidentally, also a Jew).

“He was one of the greatest composers of our era,” Bresnick says. “You learn from what he said about things, but also from what he did. I had that as an example. It’s a way of saying, ‘I am a real composer and people who study with me know that.'”

And it is as a composer that Bresnick wants to be known. He doesn’t downplay the importance of teaching. On the contrary, it is an integral part of the ethos in which he was raised by his Yiddishist, socialist family.

“Teaching for me has always had a strong social component,” he says. “It’s part of giving back. I came out of a working-class family in the Bronx and was given a tremendous opportunity by others. I had it ingrained in me that you serve and have to share.”

That’s a lesson he was taught growing up in the Amalgamated Co-ops.

“I had a very devoted secular Jewish upbringing,” Bresnick says. “My family were dedicated Yiddishists, I was sent to the Arbeiter Ring [Workmen’s Circle] elementary school. My family ran the gamut politically from anarchist to liberal Democrats. I can still read Yiddish, and my aunt, Phylis Berk, is a well-known Yiddish singer. My mother, at 85, is still a professional storyteller who travels around the country talking about life in the shtetl.”

It was a wonderful milieu in which to grow up, but not so hot for learning classical music, he admits.

“When I was little, my parents had very few classical records,” Bresnick recalls. “I could memorize very quickly. Somewhere out there is a disk with me singing snippets of ‘Barber of Seville’ and ‘The Nutcracker,’ which were the two classical records they had at first. But they recognized that I had a talent, and they got me a couple of records when they could. The first time I ever heard a woodwind quintet was when I saw one live at the age of 9 on a school trip. I was completely dumbfounded by the bouquet of timbres.”

It was the beginning of a career and a calling.

“I would listen to a Beethoven symphony when I was 7 and feel that I understood what was intended,” he says. “I had some comprehension of the point of [writing] a symphony. And I felt, ‘I can do it too.’ I think I understood that it had something to do with what it means to be a human being.

“Music for many people at that age is a wonderful refuge. It offers them an ordered world. As a composer, you are making a world.”

On the other hand, Bresnick was also participating in the world around him. As a teenager, he played rock guitar, graduated from the High School of Music and Art at 16 “as the youngest beatnik ever,” he adds with a laugh, and was in grad school on the West Coast by 20. He saw Jimi Hendrix live, still admires Cream as “a great chamber-music group” and gigged as a working musician.

Even today, Bresnick “listens to everything,” and his own compositions have a uniquely American eclecticism.

“It’s Ivesian,” he says, citing the great American maverick, Charles Ives, “It’s totally democratic; everybody’s got a right to belly up to the table and contribute.”

Bresnick is a composer who can juxtapose the repetitive structures of minimalism with Stravinskian harmonies, who can use a Willie Dixon blues riff as the jumping-off point for a Brahmsian chamber piece, who can write movingly for marimba and orchestra.

If you ask him if there is any musical style that he would reject out of hand, he smiles and says, “I’m ready to accept almost any influence into my domain. My ‘border guards’ may ask them to show their passport first, though.”

He admits to excluding only one major late-20th-century movement.

“I’m not that interested in conceptual art,” he says. “Most of it has revealed itself to be poorer conceptually than any physically based art. I believe in the line from William Carlos Williams, ‘No ideas but in things.’ I like the pleasures of the physical world, and if I can embody something in the world of music, that’s good enough.”

Above all, he wants to be known as a composer first and foremost.

“No question about it,” he says emphatically. “I’ve never thought of myself any other way. I love teaching and I’m glad to be well-regarded as a teacher, but I have no doubt of my own self-identity.”

Anyone who hears Bresnick’s music, live or on disk, will agree.

“The Essential Martin Bresnick” featuring the Bang on a Can All-Stars, is available on the Cantaloupe Records label.

Noah Bleich: A Man of Many Hats

‘>Alex Baum

‘>Eve Marcus

‘>Marilyn Harran

‘>Rebecca Levinson

‘>Yoram Hassid

Noah Bleich is standing at the entrance of an elementary school with a blue-and-white menorah on his head. Once again, he has dragged himself out of bed to read stories to children.

“I’m not a morning person,” he says, “but it’s easy for me to get up if I have a reason.”

Every other week, for about three years, Bleich has been visiting neighborhood schools to read to kids. Each time, he arrives in a different hat. This morning, he has tossed aside his zebra-print cowboy hat, giant sombrero and Mad Hatter top hat in favor of a white faux-fur and blue velvet piece topped with felt candles. The kids love it.

Bleich, 31, is used to wearing many hats. As the newly elected president of the South Robertson Neighborhood Council, Bleich not only runs the council’s monthly meetings, but he spends much of his time — as many as 30 hours a week, he says — planning projects to benefit the community.

“He’s like the Superman of the Neighborhood Council,” said Steven Coker, a council board member. “Most people think of themselves first, and if there’s time or money left over, then they think of everybody else. With Noah, it’s reversed. He thinks of the community first and himself second.”

An observant Jew, Bleich provides a Jewish rationale for his commitment. While Judaism teaches that each individual is unique and special, it also emphasizes community, he says.

He tries to put this teaching into practice: “Judaism should be about living it.”

Bleich, a self-employed computer consultant, has started building a computer lab at the local community center. He has also written a grant application, asking for funds to renovate the center and build a garden outside.

He recently helped a group get funding for a three-week program for at-risk youth. Kids will now be able to go to the community center to take life-skills classes during their winter break from school. Bleich has volunteered to coach the children on how to build computers and how to cook.

One of Bleich’s greatest passions is protecting the environment. As the leader of the council’s Green Team committee, Bleich runs monthly neighborhood cleanups to pick up garbage, paint over graffiti and plant trees and flowers (he initiated a project to plant hundreds of trees in honor of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11 and the Los Angeles firefighters who have died in the line of duty).

Bleich pays careful attention to how his own actions impact the environment. To save gas, he walks, bikes or takes the bus whenever he can. He is a vegetarian who uses canvas shopping bags and energy-efficient lightbulbs. Bleich will pay extra for goods made in countries with high environmental and social standards.

He tries hard to do the right thing, he says, not because he believes he will change the world, but because he sees no satisfactory alternative.

“I don’t do the environmental work because I think I’m going to make a difference,” he says. “I don’t think I can, given the scope of what needs to be done.

“I do it,” he says, “because I don’t believe I’m excused from trying.”

To get involved in the South Robertson community, e-mail

The ‘Yearning’ for Torah learning goes to TV

Do you want to be happier?

Do you want to have greater love and intimacy in life?

Do you want greater self-awareness?

And did you know that you could find all these things in the wisdom of Judaism?

That’s the premise of “The Hidden Wisdom of Our Yearnings with Irwin Kula,” a two-hour PBS show airing Dec. 10 on KCET. Based on Rabbi Kula’s new book, “Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life” (Hyperion, 2006, with Linda Lowenthal), the program is one of the first that PBS has given to a rabbi or Jewish leader teaching to the masses.

Kula, who is the president of CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Leadership, also hosted public television’s 13-part series, “Simple Wisdom With Irwin Kula.” He is one of a number of Jewish leaders trying to bring Jewish teaching to the mainstream, including Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, Rabbi Harold Kushner and conservative talk show host Dennis Prager.

“Can we take Jewish wisdom public?” Kula said in a telephone interview with The Journal.

In the past, the Torah has been used to make Jews become better Jews, but “this is really seeing Torah as a technology to become more human.”

In the program, Kula, wears a knitted kippah on his longish silver hair and an open blue sports jacket; he walks on a stage in front of a live studio audience and discusses the “messiness” in life: life’s disappointments, conflicts, dissatisfactions — what he calls yearning.

“If we don’t have something to yearn for, some dents in our life to fix, some messiness, some crucial quality of our life is missing,” Kula tells the audience. “Yearning can be a path to blessing.”

Like other mass-market purveyors of “wisdom,” Kula has a number of catchphrases, such as “The more we allow ourselves to unfold, the less we will unravel,” and “We can want it all and always be finding enough,” but his message is one that particularly fits these new uncertain times — in which he believes much wisdom does not address.

“There’s a lot of bad messages being given,” he said, such as the conventional religious message that your behavior can improve your life, or the New Age wisdom that problems are illusions and life is actually perfect.

But Judaism knows life shouldn’t be perfect, he says, using the story of Eve eating the apple in the Garden of Eden.

“I love Eve, because she understood that Paradise is not all it’s cracked up to be!” Eve teaches us, he continued, “never to fear the messiness. The messy spaces in our lives are our greatest teachers.”

Rabbi Irwin Kula will appear on KCET on Dec. 10 5-7 p.m. He will also appear on the “Today” show on Dec. 12 and Dec. 25.

Milken School head gets the surprise of her life

Rennie Wrubel had no reason to suspect.

The board members, the 800 students on bleachers, the officials from the Bureau of Jewish Education and private foundations — they had come to Milken Community High School to hear Gen. Shaul Mofaz, minster of transportation and deputy prime minister of the state of Israel.


Mofaz, as it turns out, was a decoy. The surprise honoree was Wrubel herself, who received the Milken Family Foundation’s Jewish Educator Award for her work as Milken’s head of school for the last 10 years.

“I just have one question,” a stunned but composed Wrubel asked when she was finally able to lift herself off her seat. “Is that really Mofaz?” (It was.)

The annual Jewish Educator Awards, with a $10,000 prize, is awarded in conjunction with the Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) to five Los Angeles day school teachers or administrators annually.

“I want to recognize and celebrate a person whose intelligence, whose leadership, whose commitment and compassion have made a profound difference in our community, a person who has positively impacted thousands of young people’s lives,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the Milken Family Foundation, which gave the naming gift and maintains close ties to the high school.

As Milken stood at the dais to announce the award, Wrubel wondered why he was talking about appreciating excellence in education, when the assembly was about Israel. Colleagues whispered that perhaps the digression was to recognize the school as a whole, since Wrubel surmised that he couldn’t be presenting a Jewish Educator Award, because she would have been informed of that.

Then Milken asked for “the envelope.” The school orchestra went into a drum roll and an audible wave of anticipation passed among the students. When he announced that Dr. Rennie Wrubel was the recipient of a Jewish Educator Award, Wrubel slumped in her seat, open mouthed — and the gym exploded.

That kind of reaction, and its ripple effect through the wider community, is what Milken Foundation officials are going for with the dramatic presentation of the awards.

“The surprise element evolved as the best way to get everyone’s attention and to make it most memorable to the students and to other people in the room,” said Richard Sandler, executive vice president of the Milken Family Foundation. “We’re trying to get the community behind teaching, behind educators, and trying to get kids to understand that educators are recognized and appreciated and that kids should consider this as a profession.”

Sandler and a caravan of BJE and Milken Foundation officials presented the four other awards in one packed day in late October. Videos of those emotional assemblies will form the centerpiece of an awards luncheon in Bel Air on Dec. 14.

At Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, second- and third-grade teacher Beverly Yachzel received her award in an intimate gathering of the student body and teachers at the small school.

Tami Rosenfeld, a fourth-grade Hebrew and Judaic studies teacher at Pressman Academy in Los Angeles, didn’t know her family was hiding out in the back of the sanctuary for the occasion.

Rabbi Simcha Frankel, a teacher at Cheder Menachem Elementary School in Los Angeles, at first demurred from coming to the stage, but the cheering boys coaxed him up.
Bluma Drebin, Bible department chair and teacher of mathematics at the YULA girls’ high school, elicited whoops and hollers from the girls.

But even by the Milken Foundation’s standards, the ruse around Wrubel’s ceremony was unusual.

The elaborate scheming behind the assembly was the work of Metuka Benjamin, director of education at Stephen S. Wise Temple, the parent organization for Milken Community High School.

Benjamin arranged for Consul General Ehud Danoch to come to the school, under the pretense of recognizing the school’s ambitious new Tiferet Israel Program, where 40 tenth graders will go to Israel for four months this winter and spring.

Then, three days before the assembly, Benjamin got a call from Mofaz saying he would be in town.

She jumped at the chance, and pulled off the last-minute schedule change for Mofaz to speak to the students.

Mofaz and Danoch both addressed the students, congratulating them on their continued commitment to fostering the bond between Israeli and American teens.

For several years, Milken Community High School has participated in an exchange program with its sister school in Tel Aviv, sending delegations each year to live with families.
This year a larger delegation will live in dorms, continue their Milken education and learn Jewish history and heritage both in the classroom and on field trips to the places they learn about.

In 11th and 12th grade, the same group of students will continue to have special classes aimed at teaching them to be advocates for Israel, and they will become part of the Israeli Consulate’s speaker’s bureau.

The fact that the assembly honoring Wrubel ended up being so focused on Israel was appropriate, Rabbi Eli Herscher of Stephen S. Wise, said, since one of Wrubel’s strongest passions is for connecting the kids to Israel.

For information on the awards visit

Hitting the century mark doesn’t stop this translator

Most afternoons, you can find Eva Zeitlin Dobkin working. Undaunted by the 100-year marker she passed last month, she pulls her wheelchair up to the hospital bed in the room she shares at the Jewish Home for the Aging — her side is separated by a curtain — and spreads her work out over the lavender bedspread. While her roommate rests or watches television with the volume turned high, Dobkin spends a couple of hours editing “Burning Earth” (“Brenendike Erd” ), a historical novel she has translated from Yiddish to English.

She began working on the book in 1984, then had to put it aside to complete other translation projects.

Now, despite limits to her endurance, she is reviewing her final version for the fifth or sixth time, making corrections in longhand — she gave up the computer two years ago — and occasionally referring to a Yiddish-English dictionary to verify her word choice. The book, by Aaron Zeitlin, who may be a cousin, was written in 1934 and centers on a group of Zionists who spied for the British, prior to the Balfour Declaration of 1917.

This is the fourth or fifth book Dobkin has translated, in addition to innumerable articles, letters and personal memorabilia. Her best-known book is “Profiles of a Lost World: Memoirs of East European Jewish Life before World War II” by Hirsz Abramowicz, published in 1999.

Recently, Dobkin did take one afternoon off to celebrate her birthday — she was born on Nov. 20, 1906. Dressed in black slacks and a black sweater trimmed in white, her gray hair pulled neatly back, she sat in one of the home’s conference rooms at the head of a large table. Her son, Jack Forem, flanked her on one side, her youngest sister, Hannah Doberne, on the other. A cake, frosted in chocolate with brightly colored flowers, was set before her, as well as two balloon bouquets.

Friends joined her at the table. A second group, in chairs and wheelchairs, formed an outer circle. They clapped and occasionally sang along to “Bei Mir Bist Du Shein” (“To Me You Are Beautiful”), “Di Grine Kuzine” (“The Greenhorn Cousin”) and other Yiddish songs played by a pianist and violist. Staff members, most in red uniform smocks, clapped along.

“I regret that when you’re 100, I probably won’t be able to come to your simcha,” Dobkin, told her guests, including about 25 fellow residents at the Eisenberg campus, where she’s lived two years and is known as Eva Forem.

It was her day to shine, though, with 19 residents currently ranging in age from 100 to 108, centenarians are surprisingly common at the Jewish Home. Dobkin, however, is among the lucky ones, in that she is well and alert enough to be able to keep working.

Dobkin doesn’t play bingo, and she doesn’t own a television. She occasionally attends a lecture or musical event, but generally, when she isn’t working, she is reading, usually The Forward in Yiddish or English or The Jewish Journal. She reads without glasses, except for very small print.

She also spends about 45 minutes each afternoon discussing her work by telephone with her son, 62, who is a writer and lives in Yucca Valley, and who has been collaborating with her on the book’s final stages. Dobkin is hoping to find a publisher for it.

She has been translating Yiddish since 1932, when she was hired by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency at $15 a week to work as a Yiddish and English typist. By the end of the first week, however, she was writing stories in Yiddish and English off the cable transmissions, eventually working her way up to $35. However, she left after two or three years to study for her teaching credential.

In 1936, she married Leon Forem, and in 1946 her son was born. She separated from her husband five months afterward and moved to Los Angeles in 1957, supporting herself by teaching public school from 1957 to 1972, mostly at Pacoima’s Telfair Avenue Elementary School.

Born in Waterbury, Conn., to parents who had just emigrated from Russia’s Mohilev Province, now Belarus, she was the oldest of seven children, and her youngest sister, 85, is her only surviving sibling. She grew up bilingual in Yiddish and English, and at age 3 she was taught by her father to write her name in Yiddish.

“There were Jewish periodicals coming into the house, and I would look at them whether I understood them or not,” she said.

Dobkin attended public school in Waterbury and later, after moving at age 16, in the Bronx. She also received a Jewish secular education, taught primarily in Yiddish, and considers herself not religious but “very Jewish.”

She often had to care for her younger siblings while her parents worked but nevertheless managed to acquire an A.B. in German, with a minor in English and education from Hunter College, as well as a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. The family was poor.

“We had nothing. Sometimes we didn’t have a quarter to put in the gas meter,” she said.

She attributes her success, and that of her siblings, to her parents’ emphasis on education and the availability of free schooling. Her longevity, she believes, is due to genetics.

“Pick the right parents and grandparents,” she advised, wryly. She won’t commit to a future translating project but is considering writing a family history.

“Have a few more birthdays,” her son said as the party wound down.

“I wouldn’t mind,” Dobkin retorted, “if they’re not any worse than this one.”

For more information, call (310) 456-2178

Reform, Conservative, Orthodox leaders tell all

“Where are we as a people?”

On Monday, the three heads of the leading Jewish seminaries tackled this question, as well as the challenges of teaching a new generation of Jews in an hourlong plenary session that stepped outside the overriding focus on Israel at the United Jewish Communities General Assembly.

Richard Joel, president of Yeshiva University (YU); professor Arnold M. Eisen, chancellor-elect of the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS) and Rabbi Norman Cohen, provost of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) spoke about training the next generation, led by moderator Dr. Beryl Geber, associate executive vice president, policy development, of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

It was the first time that these Orthodox, Conservative and Reform leaders have appeared together, a reflection, perhaps, of the changing of the guard at the seminaries. Joel, the former director of Hillel: The Campus for Jewish Life, is three years into his job at the Orthodox YU, and Eisen, chair of the department of religious studies at Stanford, is the newly elected chancellor of the Conservative JTS and will begin there in July. Both appointments have been hailed as indicators that the institutions are moving in new directions.

Although it was not a “Kumbaya” session, where the three leaders of the universities “waved candles and sat together,” as Joel said in a post-meeting discussion with the three leaders and The Journal, that was not his ultimate goal. Instead, they focused on their common challenges and goals, while still delineating their differences.

They share the aim of trying to create seminaries more in touch with the outside world or, as Eisen said, “The sociological understanding of the realities of American Jewish life.” They all are seeking to educate Jews of all ages about Jewish life and Israel and, most importantly, exploring how to create meaningful experiences that will engage the younger generation.

“There’s no doubt that the young people today will not be just like us,” Eisen told the thousands of people at the morning plenary. “There’s a lot that’s not working, a lot that’s not worth joining and there’s a lot that’s not directed at them. We can’t really look at 18-year-olds and 25-year-olds as future propagators of the Jewish people. We have to work with them as individuals with hearts and souls and minds that we need right now; that we have something to say to right now.”

Joel said he was having “deja vus all over again,” because in 1969, at a similar meeting, the younger generation disrupted the meeting, saying the elders didn’t understand them, and they wanted their voices heard. They said, “If only they would be allowed to join the conversation, it would be different!” Joel said, “They were allowed in, and it is different.”

But also, in many ways, he said, it’s not different.

“Young people are young people,” he said. “They would like to matter in the world.” The challenge, he said, is not understanding them but “feeding them” by educating them.

This next generation, said HUC-JIR’s Cohen, is “searching for answers. If we can provide communities of meaning that can draw them in, that will enable them to struggle with the enduring question of life that we all have; they will ultimately be drawn in.” Cohen discussed the synagogue as the way to engage the younger generation.

Overall, the three expressed hope and optimism that there are ways to engage the next generation, although during their public discussion, they were light on specifics. JTS’s Eisen brought up Birthright, the fully sponsored free trips to Israel offered to people 26 and under. He called it the most successful program for the Jewish continuity “since the bar mitzvah” and suggested that the community do something similar for older people.

After the plenary, the three discussed ways that they are implementing change within their seminaries. “The training at the colleges is radically different today” than it was 20 years ago, Cohen said.

For example, he said, instead of simply taking classes, students are mentored, and they work in the community.

Eisen said that from his perspective at Stanford, he sees the JTS students as living in a cocoon “surrounded by people committed to Jewish professional careers,” and he wants to get them into the real world. “I think that all of us have a problem that a huge portion of the rabbi’s job is something they’re not prepared for,” he said, referring to everyday problems, such as dealing with synagogue boards. Joel added that YU has now begun tracking its rabbinic students to find out which ones plan to go onto pulpits, into education or other professions, so they can tailor their education accordingly.

Cohen of the Reform seminary said one of the biggest challenges is to create collaboration between the denominations.

“We are tremendously fragmented,” he said. “How do we begin to see each other as partners?”

During the plenary, Cohen encouraged the federation system to be the mediator and unifier in bringing synagogues and institutions of different movements together.

“Our mere presence here is a statement of unified vision,” Cohen said.

But Joel was quick to point out both publicly and privately that their vision is not exactly unified.

“Let’s acknowledge some clouds,” he said. “We have huge differences between us that will never be overcome. There are boundaries we can’t bridge. Good will will not overcome those boundaries.”

The Reform and Conservative movement share challenges that are different from the Orthodox, such as intermarriage, assimilation and engaging the next generation. The Orthodox are grappling with how to apply the Torah and moral learnings to the secular world and how to engage their Jewishly educated children in the world, while the Reform and Conservative are looking at how to apply the lessons of the outside world to educating their children Jewishly.

For example, Reform and Conservative congregants and students focus on social action programs, such as helping people in Darfur, to which they apply accompanying texts from the Torah and rabbinical teachings. YU students, on the other hand, might have studied at yeshiva in Israel and learned the “Ethics of the Fathers” but don’t know how to apply it in their own communities or other communities.

Secrets of cosmos draw eyes heavenward

The Ultra Deep Field Image from the Hubble Space Telescope is rapturous.

Over the course of four months in late 2003 and early 2004, the orbiting observatory trained its eye hundreds of times on a speck of the heavens just south of the constellation Orion.

Why this minuscule spot? With relatively few stars intervening between Hubble and the edge of the Milky Way, it gave the telescope an almost completely unobstructed view of infinity.

“Like many of the images we get from Hubble, this one inspires awe,” said Mario Livio, a senior astrophysicist at the Hubble Space Telescope Science Institute in Maryland. “In this tiny patch of sky, we can see over 10,000 galaxies. Some of the light reaching us is 13 billion years old. That’s basically a snapshot of the beginning of time.”

” border=0 hspace = ’12’ vspace = ’12’ width = ‘200’ align = right alt=”Michael Hecht”>Hecht studied theoretical physics as an undergraduate at Princeton and as a master’s degree candidate at MIT. Like Livio, the revelations of the first generation of X-ray satellites inspired him to pursue a career in space science.

“But it wasn’t until my teenage son got interested in astronomy that I actually looked at the stars through a telescope,” Hecht said.

Soon after he finished his doctorate at Stanford, Hecht became a member of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. He’s currently managing a team of scientists and engineers that will send a suite of instruments to Mars to assess the potential hazards Martian dust and soil might pose to human explorers.

With a universe of possibilities, what attracted him to the Red Planet?

“Even through a fairly small telescope,” Hecht said, “Mars looks tantalizingly close. And it’s similar enough to earth so that the physical processes are familiar but not quite the same. An apple wouldn’t fall from a tree in quite the same way.”

Hecht’s next Mars project, which will be launched in 2011, will land near the planet’s north pole and deploy a hot-nose drill to extract samples of the Martian ice cap. With any luck, these samples will turn out to be frozen time capsules that reveal the history of climate change on Mars and help us understand changes in the climate on Earth.

This imperative to make a connection between his work on a distant planet and everyday human experience isn’t a sideshow for Hecht; in fact, it’s the main event.

“Scientists are storytellers,” he said. “But often their storytelling lacks imagination. If we can’t get people excited about what we’re learning, what’s the point?”

As the science editor for Parade magazine and the author of over a dozen books on popular astronomy, David Levy is doing his best to make space science exciting for those without advanced degrees in theoretical physics.

Levy’s love affair with space began when he was at summer camp in 1956. On the night of July 4, the homesick 8-year-old was dazzled when he saw a meteor streak across the sky. The sighting was auspicious: Meteor storms occur when Earth passes through the trail of debris left by passing comets, and Levy has made name for himself as a master comet hunter.

“This past Kol Nidre, I discovered my 22nd comet,” he said. “There it was, near Saturn in the early morning sky.”

His most famous discovery was comet Shoemaker-Levy, which spectacularly crashed into Jupiter in July 1994.

Like Hecht, Levy sees an intimate connection between his passion for astronomy and his religious experience. “When I was 11, I was walking home from synagogue on Yom Kippur and noticed the gibbous moon,” he said. “I realized people have been looking up at the same 10-day-old moon on Yom Kippur for thousands of years.”

Levy pointed out that the relationship between Judaism and sky-watching is as old as recorded human history. In a tradition that has been lost in our era of light-polluted skies, a man used to stand outside each synagogue to wait for the darkness at day’s end to reveal three stars — the sign that marked the end of the Sabbath. And the rhythms of the Jewish year take their cue from the moon as it arcs in its orbit around Earth. Thus the lives of ancient Jews were intimately connected to the night sky in ways that are difficult for us perpetually distracted moderns to imagine.

Whether they’re secular or religious, Jewish astronomers are part of a venerable tradition of inquiry and teaching. And the light transmitted by this tradition shines just as brightly in the upcoming generation of space scientists.

Learning With the Learned; Virtual Hartman Institute; Jewish Law Course Offers CLE Credit

Learning With the Learned

Five of Los Angeles’ learned rabbis and teachers will share their wisdom in “Master Class,” an advanced Judaic continuing education class open to all at the University of Judaism (UJ), beginning Nov. 9. Each thematic section will meet for three sessions on Thursday evenings over the course of the fall and spring.

Moral questions define the first three elements: Rabbi Mordechai Finley of Ohr Ha Torah Congregation will speak on “Soul and Virtue: Inner Work from the Sources of Mussa and the Kabbalah” and will discuss both moral and spiritual growth; Robert Wexler, president of the University of Judaism, will explore the book of Leviticus, including “priests, sacrifices and the triumph of morality”; and Elliot Dorff, rector and distinguished professor of philosophy at the UJ, who also teaches law at UCLA School of Law, will tackle Jewish medical ethics and moral values.

A more historical approach will define the final two sections, with Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson teaching the medieval masters Saadia, Rambam and Ha-Levi, and Reb Mimi Feigelson discussing Chasidic views from Purim to Pesach.

The class curriculum, said Gady Levy, vice president for continuing education at the UJ, was designed around great teachers and their expertise.

“Great passion is infectious and relating to students makes it possible for enthusiasm to spread,” he said.

“The goal,” Levy said, “like Judaism itself — is simple, yet complex. The expert teachers guide students through the deep philosophies of ancient texts. The knowledge that is the result of this journey is then applied to contemporary experience, making it useful in daily life. This jibes with the overall goal of helping our community live richer, fuller lives through Judaism.”

This is the second year of the Master Class series; about 140 students participated last year, and approximately the same number are expected this year. Space is still open for registration, which costs $250 for the 15 sessions. Classes are held on Thursday evenings, 7:30-9:30 p.m. Call (310) 476-9777 ext. 473 for registration information.

— Susan Freudenheim, Managing Editor

Virtual Hartman Institute

Members of Temple Israel of Hollywood have an opportunity to study with some of the top teachers in Israel through a video class with the Shalom Hartman Institute, a pluralistic program of education, scholarship and leadership training in Jerusalem.

Beginning Nov. 12, Rabbis John Rosove and Michelle Missaghieh will together lead eight sessions over the year with a one-hour chavruta (study partners) session on a text chosen by the Hartman Institute, followed by a video lecture and Q-and-A with a scholar.

The theme of “The Foundations of a Thoughtful Judaism: Eight Dilemmas of Faith” will explore the questions of who is God and what is faith.

Missaghieh is particularly excited about this program, because she is participating in the Center for Rabbinic Enrichment, a Hartman Institute program that selects 30 rabbis from across the country to partake in weekly satellite classes, and winter and summer institutes in Israel.

“It’s an amazing, amazing gift,” said Missaghieh, who is in the third year of the three-year program. “The learning is on such a high level, and the camaraderie and connection between the rabbis is really fantastic.”

The video classes being offered to the congregation are an outgrowth of the rabbinic program.”The congregation is supporting us in allowing us to go to Israel twice a year and do this class every Monday for three hours,” Missaghieh said. “So the institute developed this opportunity for the lay leadership in our synagogues to understand the high level of learning and to buy into the whole Hartman philosophy and mission of pluralism, of high level learning, of really examining the text from all different points of view.”

Along with Missaghieh, Rabbi Sheri Zwelling Hirsch of Sinai Temple in Westwood and Rabbi Don Goor of Temple Judea in West Hills are participating in the rabbinic program, and Temple Judea last year ran the video class.

The Hartman class complements an already full calendar of adult education at Temple Israel, including a documentary film series for women that includes discussion and text study on the topic; Torah through visual and performing arts; Hebrew classes; basic Judaism; adult bar and bat mitzvah programs; and adult education for parents in the temple’s nursery, religious and day schools.

— Julie Gruenbaum Fax, Education Editor

Jewish Law Course Offers CLE Credit

More than 20 Southland Chabads, from Thousand Oaks to Huntington Beach, will lawyer up during the second week in November with the introduction of a new class, “You Be the Judge: Behind the Steering Wheel of Jewish Law,” a six-week course that explores how secular and religious law relate by examining actual cases brought before a beit din, or court of Jewish law.

The class is modeled after one taught by Jeremy Rabkin, a U.S. government professor at Cornell University, and is being offered for the first time by the Rohr Jewish Learning Institute (JLI), a worldwide Chabad adult education program. Local attorneys can earn continuing legal education credit for the course, which has been accredited by the National Board of License.

The six classes will examine such topics as the enforceability of immoral contracts, Holocaust-related claims and distinguishing between creative opportunity and crass opportunism through the lens of talmudic law. “You Be the Judge” will be taught concurrently each week at more than 200 locations throughout the United States and at sites around the world, although days and times will vary.

However, once a student is registered, he or she can take the class at any location.

“If you’re taking this class in Agoura Hills, and if you happen to be traveling to Las Vegas the next week, you can pick it up there,” said Rabbi Efraim Mintz, JLI director.

Behind the Bimah

In “Teaching Your Children About God,” Rabbi David Wolpe suggests taking our children to a sanctuary when services are not being conducted to give them a sense of the

I love this idea. I have been in my own sanctuary at odd hours, and even if I am there for “business reasons” — taking pictures for a new synagogue brochure, for example — I feel different in the sanctuary than I do in any other room.
Seeing the eternal light, knowing the Torah is sleeping inside the ark, gives me the feeling of being on holy ground.

But here’s a variation on Wolpe’s idea — let your children stand in awe in front of the bimah, but then take them behind the bimah. Raise the curtain and demystify the sanctuary. By doing so you help them feel comfortable.

Many of my adult friends still feel uncomfortable in synagogue. To them, it is a place where you have to go — where you have to sit still and say meaningless prayers in a difficult language, where you have to listen to lectures from a rabbi who you do not know personally and are, perhaps, a little intimidated by. No wonder they only attend services twice a year.

I was extremely fortunate as a child. My family “raised the curtain” for me. And they did so by doing two things.

The first is unique to my family — my uncle is Cantor Saul Hammerman, who is now cantor emeritus of Beth El in Baltimore. Before my parents affiliated with our Philadelphia synagogue, they would take us to Baltimore to be with our extended family for holidays. I remember sitting in Beth El, an imposing synagogue to anyone, but even more so to a little girl. I looked up at the enormous ark and wondered how anyone could ever reach the Torahs.

I listened to the brilliant Rabbi Jacob Agus, and wondered how old I would be when I would understand his sermons. And I listened to the chazzan — so imposing in his white robes and his big white hat with the pompom on top (oh, how my sister and I loved that hat). When he sang, his voice wafted over me — both beautiful and frightening in its power and passion.

But, then, during the Torah procession, something would happen. My sister and I would scramble to the end of the aisle to kiss the Torah, and as the procession passed the cantor would wink at us and flick his tallit so that the fringes brushed our cheeks. We would giggle, and the imposing chazzan would once again become our beloved Uncle Saul.

At other times, Uncle Saul took us to his office and even showed us where his robes hung and how he entered and exited the bimah. Those special visits made the synagogue seem less foreboding, but no less magical.

The second thing my parents did was be involved with our synagogue. Their involvement inspired my own. I remember being on the bimah with the choir, making macaroni in the kitchen between tutoring the younger students and waiting for my own evening classes to begin, and even raking leaves at my rabbi’s house during our Kadima “Rent-A-Rake” fundraiser. This involvement, this ownership, made synagogue a comfortable place.

And so, the very first thing I did when my husband and I joined our shul was to volunteer. I didn’t like the feeling of entering the synagogue and not knowing what it was like behind the bimah. By volunteering, I was able to feel at home. I did this for me and I did it for my children.

This is a gift every Jewish parent can give to her child. Not all families have an Uncle Saul, but everyone can volunteer. Synagogues desperately need lay leaders. It is so easy to get involved — just call and ask how you can help. And then? Well, you will have raised the curtain, you will learn that a synagogue is not run on some intimidating magic, but by people you know and care about. Synagogue will no longer be a frightening Oz, but rather a welcoming home.

Meredith Jacobs, author of the soon-to-be released “Modern Jewish Mom’s Guide to Shabbat” (HarperPerennial) is founder and editor of

Unraveling the Red String

It’s just before midnight, and the Pico-Robertson neighborhood is bustling. Teenagers are hanging out on corners near the pharmacy and suited men and high-heeled women are walking from synagogue to synagogue to attend the lecture of their choice.

It’s the first night of Shavuot, the holiday that celebrates when the Jews received the Torah, and it’s customary to stay up all night studying Jewish topics in what’s called a Tikkun Leyl Shavuot, which literally means a repair (as in tikkun olam). It’s a repair for the fact that the Israelites fell asleep the night before the Torah was given; they were not excited enough, so now Jews, throughout the centuries, have studied, sometimes in a private chevruta but often by listening to scholars speak.

Around this neighborhood — and the city — the standard lectures were being given on topics ranging from the Book of Ruth to Israel, but something off the beaten path was taking place on Robertson Boulevard in a lecture at Anshei Emet Synagogue. The subject was “Kabbalah and the Red String.”

Kabbalah is not often a topic studied by the Orthodox (who believe, according to tradition, that the mystical studies should only be done by scholars older than 40), and this was not necessarily a lecture one would expect to be delivered by Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz, who is the head of Jews for Judaism, an anti-missionary and anti-cult center.

Jews for Judaism was founded 21 years ago “to keep Jews Jewish and defend the community from threats and missionaries.” Its primary purpose has been to train Jews to ward off traditional missionaries, such as Jews for Jesus (which its name seems to parody), messianic Jews, Mormons and Evangelical Christians.

But kabbalists?

At the late-night lecture addressed to some 40 men and women — seated separately on wood benches on the men’s side of the synagogue — Kravitz never mentioned any kabbalah institution by name. Well, not exactly. But add up the references to red string, Madonna, Britney Spears, Ashton Kutcher, expensive holy water and you can put it all together. The rabbi was alluding to the controversial practices of The Kabbalah Centre, whose L.A. base is on Robertson Boulevard.

“If Madonna can wear a T-shirt saying she’s a cult member, who am I to argue with her?” Kravitz said.

Kabbalah is a library of Jewish mystical writing initiated in the 12th and 13th centuries of the common era in the books of the Zohar. The Zohar tells you the mystical reasons of the commandments, and that when you follow these commandments, you hasten the bringing of the Messiah.

During the hourlong midnight lecture Kravitz discussed why the kabbalah being promulgated by celebrities at the Kabbalah Centre is not the real kabbalah of ancient Jewish mystics. He talked of what true mystical study really is and how religious Jews can benefit from it in their own spiritual practices.

He spoke of what it means to have spiritual kavanah, or intention, when you do something. Spiritual intention is good, he said, but intention without action is meaningless. Take charity for example. One can be meditating kabbalistically on charity, “but if there’s a person sitting opposite you starving to death, you’re commanded to actually feed them.”

Mystical thoughts can enhance spiritual practice, “but the action is always the main thing,” he said. “And without mentioning names, when people take the action out of it, they’re missing the purpose of why we do mitzvot and connecting to God.”

At the center, a common practice is to read letters and words repeatedly, including the Zohar, the original kabbalistic mystical text.

Kravitz earlier told The Journal in a phone interview that he didn’t want to focus on The Kabbalah Centre by name because “I’m not interested in giving them more publicity. It’s giving them credibility — they don’t belong in the paper — every time some star decides to do something with them, they deserve space in a Jewish paper?” he asked, referring to The Jewish Journal. “To me, they’re no different than Mormonism or Jews for Jesus or Scientology. They’re using the terminology to make themselves look Jewish, but they’re not part of it.”

This was not the first time Kravitz has delivered his lecture “Kabbalah and the Red String,” whose advance flyer included questions: “Why are people seeking answers to modern-day issues in an ancient Jewish wisdom? Why has kabbalah left so many disillusioned, angry and confused?”

In the last couple of years, he’s delivered the same talk at synagogues and institutions like the University of Judaism. But Kravitz’s open questioning of the center represents a shift in the notion of what constitutes today’s missionaries and today’s threats to Judaism.

“I don’t think cults have become less of a threat today; there are just different kinds of cults,” he said. “There are psychotherapy cults, freedom of mind cults…. People being pressured to volunteer and get their friends to join — if you’re told that you can’t benefit from the program, that may be a form of manipulation,” he said.

“I don’t need to call [The Kabbalah Centre] a cult. They don’t understand what a cult is. A cult is a group that uses deception and manipulation to keep members in its group.”

Rabbi Michael Berg, co-director of The Kabbalah Centre, was not available for comment as of press time. He has denied in the media that The Kabbalah Centre is a cult and rejects the idea that anyone is being brainwashed. In 2000, he told New Times, “One of the basic teachings of the center is, ‘Don’t accept a word that anyone tells you; you have to come to your own understanding and live with it.’ Unlike many other religious organizations, there’s no coercion. It’s the opposite of that. We’re very open that we need financial support to continue publishing books and running the organization, but there’s no push. It’s more like, ‘If you have a chance, please help us out.'”

Kravitz, of course, is far from being the first Jewish rabbi or academic scholar to denounce the center.

For example, in February, the UCLA Center for Jewish Studies hosted Rachel Elior, a professor of Jewish philosophy and Jewish mystical thought, and chair of Hebrew University’s department of Jewish studies, to discuss “The History of Jewish Mysticism and West Coast Kabbalah.” Elior was much more direct than Kravitz. She said that The Kabbalah Centre is “part of the new age phenomenon, when ideas are for sale. The center would not be spending one day on this if they couldn’t sell it. Kabbalah was once a matter of defiance and freedom of creativity; nowadays it is — not ‘dot-edu’ and not ‘dot-org’ — but commerce. The center is part of the new age, part of globalization. They are trying to couple spiritual grace with material success.”

“The Kabbalah Centres today have nothing to do with the Divine Plan for hidden meaning of the text or with any of that,” Elior said. “They are basically about selling books for people who don’t read them … or for people who believe that by having a red string or drinking holy water they are connecting to the mysteries of the world.”

But not all rabbis and scholars in the Jewish mainstream agree with Kravitz’s dire assessment.

Jody Myers, professor of religious studies and coordinator of the Jewish studies program at CSUN, is writing a book about the popularization of kabbalah in America. She doesn’t believe that there is any such thing as authentic kabbalah, and she points out that The Kabbalah Centre doesn’t claim to be part of the Jewish community. Myers says she neither condemns nor condones The Kabbalah Centre.

In terms of its fundraising, Myers says that The Kabbalah Centre needs to raise funds, as do all Jewish organizations; it’s just doing it differently.

“I think that the American Jewish community puts a lot of pressure on people to raise money. It costs an awful lot of money to be Jewish today,” she said. At The Kabbalah Centre, “there are no membership fees, there is no annual membership, they get money from selling stuff and charging for lectures and classes. And they get money asking people to donate to a good cause, which is them.”

The participants, she said “give their money freely; they feel very grateful for [the center] and they are getting something from them that they are not getting from somewhere else.”

In the past, The Kabbalah Centre has shrugged off its critics.

At one Shabbat service in 1997, which The Jewish Journal attended, center founder Philip Berg sermonized that rabbis who oppose the center “don’t want you to know the truth. They want you to live in chaos. They are the enemies of enlightenment.”

During the last two decades, Kravitz said that Jews for Judaism has worked with thousands of people — people targeted by missionaries and cults and their concerned family members — and in recent years, these have included people from the center. “The people that I’ve come into contact with clearly accuse The Kabbalah Centre of being very manipulative and being very deceptive with their promises,” he said.

What advice does Kravitz offer to those at risk of an unhealthy involvement?

“Always use critical thinking,” the rabbi said. “Always question. Don’t accept what people say because it sounds good at first.”

Rabbi Bentzion Kravitz will be teaching a countermissionary survival seminar Tuesday evenings through June 27 at 7:30 p.m. To register, call (310) 556-3344.


Competing Moments of Truth on Schools

On Tuesday April 18, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is expected to lay the groundwork for the most defining initiative of his term in office: his attempt to take control of Los Angeles’ schools. But the day before he does, opponents of his plan will beat him to the microphone. The L.A. teachers union has scheduled a Monday press conference, hoping, they said, to push Villaraigosa in a different direction.

Villaraigosa’s first state-of-the-city speech is likely to put bone and muscle on his school takeover pitch which, up till now, nearly a year into his term, has been theoretical and short on specifics. If Villaraigosa delivers what people all over town have been waiting for, a slew of interest groups will know where they stand and will begin to respond accordingly.

“Mayor Villaraigosa has made a major commitment to take on the reform of the school district, and the civil, political and media hierarchy of the city have taken up that commitment as a serious benchmark of his performance as mayor,” said David Abel, a publisher who founded New Schools, Better Neighborhoods, an organization that works to shape schools as centers of community revitalization.

Unless Villaraigosa holds off — and further delay might be seen as retreat or indecision — the mayor will set the city on a path toward mayoral control within about two years. That would put Villaraigosa on a timetable to win control in a first term as mayor and wield that power in a second term, if he is reelected.

“Getting this to happen,” said Abel, who supports mayoral control but is not directly involved in the effort, “will be a delicate balance between the doable, the clock and the mayor’s own strategic goals and political ambitions.”

United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA), the L.A. teachers union, hasn’t been content to wait for the unveiling. Over the past several weeks, union leaders have met with community groups and other key players, trying to set up a parallel juggernaut. The effort is planned to culminate the day before Villaraigosa’s speech, at a news conference during which the union will unveil its own “Call to Action” on school reform.

Early this week, the union was putting its reform declaration in final form, trying to settle on wording that will attract as many allies as possible. The stated goals will have much in common with what anyone would like to see in Los Angeles’ schools: It will call for quality instruction by fully trained teachers, a rigorous, diverse and engaging curriculum and adequate (meaning increased) funding.

“I think Mayor Villaraigosa will agree with almost all of it,” said UTLA spokesperson Steve Weingarten. “This vision of ours does not stop and start with mayoral control. We will be proposing the most dramatic changes at the school site. If you have people at that ground level making decisions, then it’s secondary who’s controlling things at the top.”

Of course, until now, the teachers union has been the most consistently powerful political force in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD). The mayor’s intervention could change that.

A recent version of the union’s draft declaration didn’t take on mayoral control directly, but spoke generally of more representation, which for the union has meant an elected school board at one end and a switch to community-governed schools at the other. Union officials also have talked about expanding the school board and “professionalizing” it. Which means making school board service a full-time job and increasing a board member’s salary and staff. That agenda is hardly compatible with putting Villaraigosa in charge.

Specific wording on who would call the shots is tricky for the union, because potential members of the union’s hoped-for coalition are not themselves settled on the issue.

“Some are a little more opposed to mayoral control than others,” said one teachers union stalwart, joking that “some are atheists and some are agnostics.”

Groups at the table with UTLA have included ACORN, a national social justice organization with deep Los Angeles roots; CARACEN, an L.A.-based organization that focuses on the needs of Central American immigrants and Latinos; and One L.A., the local affiliate of the national Industrial Areas Foundation. The union also would like to bring on board officials from smaller cities, such as Carson, South Gate and Cudahy, that are served by the LAUSD.

“The new leadership of UTLA prefers to work in concert with community organizations as part of a real alliance for change,” said Joel Jordan, the union’s director of special projects.

The union desperately wants to avoid being the bogeyman of school reform. A hint of that worst-case scenario played out during a late-March panel discussion at the Latino-Jewish Roundtable, held at the West Los Angeles headquarters of the Anti-Defamation League.

“Nobody ever gets fired,” said Marcus Castain, the mayor’s point man for developing a reform plan, while enumerating the district’s ills. “Fifty-three teachers were let got out of 37,000 in a school system where 75 percent of students are not making the grade.”

At the forum, Castain was supposed to have gone head to head with school board President Marlene Canter, who, like other board members, has evinced no desire to turn over authority to the mayor. But Canter couldn’t attend because a school board meeting ran late, and Canter’s pinch hitter avoided a verbal confrontation with Castain.

Instead, Lucy Okumu, an aide to Superintendent Roy Romer, suggested that Romer could find some common ground with the mayor if the goals included making it easier to get rid of bad teachers.

The union failed to burnish its own image recently when it backed a school board candidate, Christopher Arellano, who works for the union as an organizer. His candidacy collapsed after The Journal and other media outlets reported that he’d exaggerated his academic credentials and failed to disclose two theft convictions. UTLA spent more than $200,000 on his behalf and Arellano limped into a runoff, but he and the union have abandoned his candidacy.

The union would prefer to be one of many groups supporting its Call to Action. But each invited participant has interests that don’t perfectly coincide with the union’s. One such group is the Community Coalition, a black-brown social justice organization of South Los Angeles. Its focus has been getting the school district to make a full college-prep curriculum available to every student, said Sheilagh Polk, the coalition’s communications adviser. That goal appears in the Call to Action.

Nonetheless, the Community Coalition and other groups also are meeting with the mayor’s office. It’s clear that the mayor, too, would like to line up as many allies as possible.

The union leadership considered staging a competing event on the day of the mayor’s address, but that idea was dismissed as unnecessarily confrontational, said UTLA’s Jordan. Besides, on the charisma scale, “You’re not going upstage Antonio.”

Jordan spent most of his career in the teaching trenches, one of a legion of Jewish educators devoted to serving communities of poor black and brown students. It was another Jewish educator, Herman Katz, who helped turn around a teenage Villaraigosa when he was in danger of becoming a dropout.

Jordan remains on a first-name basis with the mayor after having worked with Villaraigosa during the future mayor’s days as a UTLA organizer: “He’s one of ours,” said Jordan.

Or so he seemed when UTLA broke with much of organized labor and backed Villaraigosa for mayor last year instead of incumbent James Hahn. Jordan and recently elected teachers’ union president A.J. Duffy met with Villaraigosa earlier this year.

“If we could show him there might be another way to have an effect on schools…” said Jordan wistfully, adding, “he left that door open.”

Jordan also conceded: “He appears to be set on his course. I wouldn’t bet against that.”


Class Notes – National Nachas for Shalhevet

Shalhevet School is on a winning streak, bringing the Los Angeles yeshiva high school to national prominence in the areas of ethics, politics and sports.

Shalhevet is the only Jewish school and the only school in Los Angeles included in a national report on how to produce students who are not only intelligent, but have a sense of moral maturity.

The 14-year-old high school is one of 24 schools from across the country included in “Smart and Good High Schools: Integrating Excellence and Ethics for Success in School, Work and Beyond,” a 225-page report recently published by State University of New York College at Cortland.

Researchers spent time at Shalhevet to observe how it builds character in its students — for example, through its weekly town hall meetings and moral discussions that permeate the classroom and extracurricular activities.

“In a ‘Smart and Good High School,’ all things in the life of the school — routines, rituals, discipline, curriculum, co-curricular activities and unplanned ‘teachable moments’ — are intentionally utilized as opportunities to foster excellence and ethics,” the report reads.

Two seniors from last year, Leor Hackel and Sara Hoenig, served on the National Student Leaders Panel for the study.

Shalhevet also chalked up a win in Yeshiva University’s Model United Nations, where about 40 Jewish high schools faced off in debates on issues such as the crisis in Darfur, how to define terrorism and providing nutritional support to alleviate the HIV crisis in sub-Saharan Africa.

Shalhevet’s win continued a long Model U.N. crosstown rivalry with YULA High School, which came in second. In the last five years Shalhevet has placed first twice and YULA three times.

Phu Tranchi, adviser to the 14-member Shalhevet team, notes that aside from spending many hours preparing, students hone their persuasive abilities at town hall meetings.

And, Tranchi added, “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that we have great overlap between the Model U.N. and the drama club — they can really get up and put on a show.”

The same can be said for Shalhevet’s Lady Firehawks, who won first place in the Hillel Community School invitational basketball tournament in Florida last month, where teams from Jewish high schools across the country competed. This was the second consecutive year that the Lady Firehawks won the tournament. Tamar Rohatiner, a Shalhevet senior, won tournament MVP.

Sun Strong for Camp Ramah

Camp Ramah in Ojai will be getting some new décor atop the Gindi Dining Hall this summer — about 250 photovoltaic panels to generate enough solar energy to cut the camp’s energy bill by about $30,000 a year.

This is phase one of a three-part project that will eventually save the camp up to $75,000 a year and will reduce toxic emissions by approximately 15 million pounds of carbon dioxide, 37,800 pounds of nitrous oxide and 121,000 pounds of sulfur dioxide over the 50-year life of the installation.

The camp received a $500,000 gift from alumnus David Braun to begin construction on the $1.3 million project. Camp Ramah expects reliance on solar power to insulate tuition against future energy cost spikes.

“By both using and educating about solar energy during future encampments, we believe we will create generations of Jewish leaders who are environmentally conscious and who will seek to move more and more Jewish and non-Jewish institutions to environmentally friendly energy options,” said Ramah’s Executive Director Rabbi Daniel Greyber.

Greyber has been working with Rep. Howard Berman (D-Van Nuys) to obtain IRS approval of a strategy to offer nonprofits the same tax incentives currently given to for-profit companies to build solar installations.

For more information about Camp Ramah or the solar energy project, call (310) 476-8571.

YULA Girls Face History

Facing History and Ourselves, a Boston-based organization dedicated to teaching morality and tolerance through the study of the Holocaust, will hold a seminar for teachers this summer at the YULA girls’ school. The five-day workshop will be geared toward, but not limited to, teachers at Orthodox schools.

“What I hope people come out with is a better way of teaching about this history and also a way to help students think about their own participation in the society in which they live,” said Jan Darsa, director of Jewish education at Facing History.

The conference runs June 25-30 and costs $500 for the first teacher and $400 per teacher after that. Applications are due April 15. For more information, contact Jan Darsa at (617) 735-1613, or visit

Jewish Peace Corps

Looking for a great summer experience of hard physical labor and few amenities? American Jewish World Service, an organization dedicated to sustainable development, will bring 16- to 25-year-olds to Africa, Central America and Asia to engage in tikkun olam, repairing the world, in the most literal sense.

The seven-week program couples intense physical work — building schools, water systems, homes and agricultural projects — with Jewish study and community experience.

The program is open to high school juniors and seniors, and adults 18-25. The application deadline is March 31. For more information, contact Sonia Gordon-Walinsky at (800) 889-7146, ext. 651, or visit

Prejudice Awareness Summit

More than 300 middle school students from area public and parochial school participated in a Prejudice Awareness Summit at the University of Judaism (UJ) last month. UJ undergraduates led the younger students in exercises that encouraged honest and open dialogue and allowed them to explore their own feelings about prejudice. Workshops focused on reducing harmful actions and developing techniques to resolve conflicts. For more information on the summit, call (310) 476-9777.


Q & A With Rabbi Ed Feinstein

After more than 20 years at Valley Beth Shalom, Rabbi Ed Feinstein recently was named senior rabbi at the Encino synagogue, succeeding Rabbi Harold Schulweis. Recently, Rabbi Feinstein, 51, began teaching an adult education course called “Knowing God: The History of the Jewish Spiritual Journey.” The Jewish Journal spoke with him about his vision for the synagogue and the problems facing the Jewish community.

The Jewish Journal: So why did you decide to teach about God? Did you think people don’t know the basics?

Rabbi Ed Feinstein: Sometimes a teacher can help you discover what you already know. The Jews in my community have a lot of latent knowledge of our tradition, but it’s not conscious so they can’t share it with their kids. One of the complaints among the young people I went to school with is that we never talked about God. So I decided, let’s talk about God un-self-consciously. How do Jews think about God? It’s a historical view of theology. God talk is unfamiliar to those who teach our kids. The whole culture is awash in spirituality except for us.

JJ: What made you decide to become a rabbi?

REF: My father’s a closet philosopher, and he would hold big Jewish discussions around the table on Friday night; Jewish ideas were always part of the conversation. There was serious discussion at my table: whether a Jew can resist the draft, or whether we owed it to the country to serve. (It turned out I didn’t have to.) We talked about Israel. We talked about Jewish life in America, whether the synagogues were worth saving.

I felt the synagogue was cold. I went to my rabbi, and I said, “I can’t relate to the shul anymore.” He gave me Heschel and I started reading how religion “became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid.” It was my luck to find in my adolescent rebellion sources within the tradition to respond to my problems in the tradition; to find these guys who were willing to show me how to find an outlet for my own ’60s rebellion within the Jewish tradition.

JJ: What were you rebelling against?

REF: The government betrayed us by sending us to Vietnam; our parents betrayed us by giving us materialistic values; and Judaism betrayed us by becoming boring. But I could be a rebel in the Jewish community. Now I am a ’60s radical … I make a great radical, get the respect of the community and still say all the things I wanted to say when we were kids.

When Rabbi Schulweis came to [VBS] my father ended dinner early, and we started coming here. Rabbi Schulweis gave me a way to be religious without having to compromise the intellectuality that I grew up with.

JJ: You gave a sermon on Yom Kippur outlining your vision for the synagogue. Can you sum it up?

America gives us many gifts: freedom, security, hope. But there’re two huge holes in American culture. One, it’s very individualistic, and therefore lonely. And two, American culture doesn’t provide a sense of the purpose for living. And these happen to be the two things that Judaism does best. It connects us with each other into community. And it reminds us that we live for each other and with each other and provides a sense of purposeful living.

JJ: What is the most serious problem facing the Jewish community?

REF: The most important problem that I deal with is how to get people to take belonging seriously, and not think of themselves as consumers of the community, but to truly think of themselves as members, that the community belongs to them and they belong to each other and they belong to the community.

That’s the problem that all non-Orthodox synagogues have, because non-Orthodox people have an identity called the sovereign self. American individualism is reticent to join, to belong, to feel committed to something, to feel claim to something. The capacity of community is to make them feel like they really belong, and they’re not here just to consume the services of the synagogue when they need it, and [to leave] when their needs are fulfilled — it’s not Wal-Mart. That’s the problem that all of us deal with.

JJ: How do you deal with it?

REF: I deal with it in a couple of ways. I try to build personal relationships with lots of people and make myself accessible. I try to emphasize that the synagogue is not just for kids. We’re also here to create a vibrant Jewish culture. We welcome people of all kinds of backgrounds. We don’t assume that anyone knows anything when we start. We try to have lots of gateways for people to come in, lots of ways to get involved. We have people going to Habitat for Humanity to build houses. They don’t go to shul — that’s their Judaism. There are lots of gateways for lots of spiritual types: All trying to connect with each other and connect with the shul.

JJ: How do you try to attract the unaffiliated?

REF: You try to create a culture of adult Judaism that is compelling and you try to invite people to join. In the end, the thing that works best is nursery school. When people have kids, they begin thinking differently about their lives. We keep the doors open to singles, but people of that ilk tend not to join — their lives are very fluid and flexible, because they should be.


The Circuit

Supercause for Super bowl

Goodies abounded on Super Bowl Sunday as, for the 20th consecutive year, “Doctor to the Stars” and Fulfillment Fund founder Gary Gitnick, chief of the Division of Digestive Diseases at UCLA School of Medicine, and his gracious wife, Cherna, opened their home to more than 200 friends for their annual Super Bowl party. What started out as a social gathering has turned into a springboard for educational supporters to speak at halftime to the guests, cozying up in the Gitnicks’ living room where the dress is casual and so is the atmosphere.

Celebs like Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and wife, Corina, stopped by to chat and speak at half time with Police Chief William Bratton, Superintendent of Schools Roy Romer, state Sen. Liz Figueroa (D-Fremont), Councilwoman Wendy Greuel, Fulfillment Fund CEO Andrea Cockrum, producer Sandy Climan, UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale, Councilwoman Janice Hahn and Darrien Iacocca with Charlie Knapp.

Chasen’s former captain, Arli, served up its famous chili but it was the dessert table that really hit home with cream puff poppers, triffle, a selection of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream with assorted toppings, cakes, brownies and luscious candies. The full house was a testament to not only the Gitnick’s well-deserved popularity, but proof that, “if you feed them, they will come.”

Sparkle and Shine

The night was all aglitter when Harry Winston launched its new 6,000-square-foot Beverly Hills flagship salon. The event, filled with gawkers and gawkees was hosted by Harry Winston chairman Ronald Winston, son of the founder, and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, chairman of the board of the Motion Picture and Television Fund Foundation. The evening was a tribute to the fund and a portion of the proceeds of sales went toward the charity.

Long known as the jeweler to the stars, Harry Winston jewels are always prominent on awards nights and adorn the biggest celebs.

The plush new salon was designed by world-renowned architect Thierry Despont, whose legion of credits include the Carlyle Hotel in New York and Claridges in London, as well as the interiors of the decorative art galleries at the Getty Museum. The grand chandelier was inspired by an over-size piece of jewelry originally created for an Indian maharaja by Harry Winston.

Guests were also treated to a glimpse of some legendary gems, including the Lesotho Diamond, weighing 71.73 carats.

Read On!

More than 120 enthusiastic students from Los Angeles Open Charter Elementary School received a special visit from Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa for the local celebration of Scholastic Read for 2006. Millions of children, parents and teachers worldwide joined together to read for 2,006 seconds (approximately 33 and a half minutes). With Villaraigosa at the helm, however, and a big book donation to celebrate, the event lingered well past the 33-minute mark. Paul Koplin, vice president of the board of directors of the Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles, was on hand to thank Villaraigosa for a 500-book donation to help the organization’s literacy providers celebrate reading for years to come.

“We’re having a great time with the mayor during this celebration of reading and are grateful to him for choosing the Literacy Network to receive these books that will be distributed among several of our over 250 literacy providers,” Koplin said. “Actually, we’d love to have him read with us more often!”

The Literacy Network of Greater Los Angeles is dedicated to eradicating illiteracy, and links volunteers, learners, donors and teaching materials with approximately 1,100 adult, family, workplace and children’s literacy program sites in Southern California.

Kick It Up

Uber boxing manager Jackie (what’s a nice Jewish girl doing in a profession like this?) Kallen cut the ribbon as the doors opened at the new Lennox Boxing Club in South Los Angeles. L.A County Sheriff Lee Baca and Kallen held a ribbon-cutting press conference at the gym to celebrate the boxing program for innercity youth, which the Sheriff’s Department will oversee. For more information on the program, call (323) 242-8784.


Proposal Advocates Shoah Forgiveness

Sam Oliner wants to help an estimated 200,000 Jewish survivors worldwide free themselves of their psychological bondage. The time, he believes, has come.

In the 1970s, several years into teaching Holocaust-related studies at Humboldt State University, Oliner, now 75, experienced his own dark night of the soul. A German student tearfully told him that she was dropping his course because she could no longer stand her guilt at what her ancestors had done.

Unwittingly, she helped move Oliner toward his own epiphany.

Had he, he wondered, unfairly pushed onto this woman his rage from when the Nazis murdered his family in Poland? Had he forgotten how Balwina Piecuch, a Catholic peasant, had taken him in, saving his life?

Through these memories, Oliner turned a personal corner to come up with an admittedly controversial proposal. It is time, he says, for Jews to collectively forgive the new generation of Germans for their parents’ atrocities.

No, Oliner is not advocating forgetting Nazi atrocities, which would be contrary to the spirit of the Holocaust Memorial. Rather, he wants to find ways to forgive the younger generation of Germans, who have acknowledged their nation’s collective responsibility and made bona fide reparations. This, he contends, would allow survivors to finally let go of a bitterness eating at their own souls.

Oliner’s personal turnabout resulted in studies, which still continue, at his Altruistic Personality and Prosocial Behavior Institute at Humboldt. From there, Oliner and his wife, Pearl, have interviewed more than 500 rescuers who risked everything to save others, while seeking no personal reward.

What, he wondered, makes these altruists, spanning from the Holocaust to Sept. 11, different from the rest of us? Are they happier, more at peace with themselves? And what can we learn from them?

Oliner was surprised that neither high self-esteem nor degree of religious observance correlated with altruistic behavior. Rather, rescuers tend to be exceptionally empathic, including fascists driven by visceral outrage at witnessed inhumanity, their private empathy overpowering their public ideology.

Rescuers also tend to have been raised in integrated neighborhoods and tend to identify less with their own ethnic group and more with humanity at large. Their families also usually stress reason over physical punishment in discipline, allowing for development of a more nuanced sense of right and wrong and lesser fear of authority.

They share strong social skills, allowing them to work well in networks. One Polish rescuer estimated that saving a single individual required an underground network of at least 10 others to feed, transport and house their charge.

Rescuers also share a strong moral sense, which enables them to lie, as needed, to authorities to safeguard their charges. Yet, they also valued family and truth. Rescuers, then, could see the grays and maintain a balance between when to tell the truth and when to shade it. And yes, rescuers also like themselves better and tend to be more successful at business.

After publishing his initial findings in “The Altruistic Personality” (Free Press, 1988), Oliner co-sponsored dozens of inter-group reconciliations, developing his model calling for victimizers to publicly acknowledge their wrongs and make restitution. The final part of his model calls for victims to grant collective forgiveness.

He recently helped lead an intergroup reconciliation in Humboldt County, where whites in 1860 slaughtered more than 100 Native Americans on Indian Island, off Eureka, in a land grab. At the reconciliation meeting, white civic leaders expressed remorse and, with money they had raised, deeded part of the island back to Indian descendants who, in turn, granted this new generation forgiveness. It wasn’t perfect. But it represented considerable progress.

Not everyone buys into Oliner’s model. His former mentor, Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, calls it “ill timed and ill conceived. Only the brutalized people have the right to forgive. It’s wrong for others, even their children, to do so in their name.”

Instead of one people forgiving another, he said, each people should promote its own rescuers from within its own ranks, thereby modeling healthy behavior.

David Harris, executive director of the New York-based American Jewish Committee, which co-sponsored Oliner’s studies, endorses the model in principle. Still, he acknowledged, “It is impossible for some survivors to let go of their anger. And so, it is up to their children to look at a changed world with new eyes.”

Harris, whose father fled Berlin in 1933, reopened the committee’s Berlin offices eight years ago with his father’s blessing.

“I was convinced that Germany has made a good faith effort to face its past directly, and to indemnify those hurt,” he said.

Like Oliner, Harris sees the five-acre Berlin Holocaust Memorial, which opened last May just a stone’s throw from Hitler’s bunker, as another step in putting the past behind. Having turned their personal corners, each now sleeps better. This is the gift they would bestow upon their own people.

Joseph Hanania is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is currently writing, “The Baghdad Blues,” a memoir of growing up as a Jewish Iraqi American.